Monthly Archives: February 2015

Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs was born in London in 1934.

He went to Wimbledon School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. From 1961 to 1987 he was a part-time lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic, during which time he became an author and freelance illustrator.

His talent for eccentric comedy was established with his Mother Goose Treasury (1966), for which he won his first Kate Greenaway Medal. The second was awarded for Father Christmas (1973), which uses the comic-strip format, as do other notable publications, including Fungus the Bogeyman (1973), The Snowman (1979), When the Wind Blows (1982), Ethel and Ernest (1998) and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age (2001).

I interviewed him in November 1998.

From what I’ve read you seem to have something of a reputation for being gloomy. Would you say that under all the gloom there is a happy man struggling to get out? 

There’s a happy man struggling to get in, I think. I do feel basically very gloomy about life, I suppose because it all ends in death. Most of my work seems to have a sad ending, so they tell me. But these so-called happy endings like ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’ are not really endings at all; they’re beginnings. An actual ending is always sad, I think.

I have the impression that you hanker after the past and that the modern world is somehow too much for you. Is that right? 

That’s a question of age. Once you get to sixty you start idealizing the past and thinking, oh, it was so much better in the olden days. Of course, it probably wasn’t, although I have to say I do think things have gone slightly mad with technology, which has possibly done more harm than good. In the old days people came into their offices and there was an in-tray full of letters and there would be a few phone calls in the course of the day, but now there are faxes and e-mail and voicemail, and the whole system bogs up. In much the same way, we have all these wonderfully improved communications nowadays and yet you can’t phone anybody anymore. Where I live in the country we can’t phone our village policeman, the local railway station, the local bank any more – all you can do is speak to a girl looking at a screen up in Liverpool or somewhere.

Would you say you are ill at ease with the times in which we live? 

Yes, I think anyone of a certain age is. The world is run by people aged between twenty and forty mainly, and by the time you’re sixty you feel that your heyday is over. People who are slightly older than me, people in their seventies, won’t use an answer phone. If my elderly relations phone me and get the machine they won’t leave a message on it. They say, oh, I can’t talk to these things, and they put the phone down. That’s the way I am with computers.

Your upbringing and background, and in particular your parents, have provided rich source material for your books. Would you say that because of this concentration on the past, as it were, you are someone who prefers to look back rather than forward? 

Somebody said that most artists work out of their childhood, and I think that applies to children’s-book artists too. Besides, it’s a natural thing to do when you get to my age.

But do you feel old at sixty-four? 

Yes. I’m very much aware of the end approaching at sixty-four. My father died at seventy-one, and I remember feeling that he’d had a good innings and that it wasn’t a bad age to die. Now that seventy-one is only a few years away, it seems horribly near, and although I don’t have Philip Larkin’s obsession with thinking he would die at exactly the same age as his father, I don’t feel I’m somehow going to leap into some wondrous new existence. I wish I could, it would be terrific, but I just don’t feel the same enthusiasm. I’ve done about twenty or thirty books and I just think, oh, here we go again.

Do you believe that the person one becomes in adult life can be explained entirely in terms of childhood influences and events? 

Gosh, that’s a difficult question. I don’t know that it can be explained entirely, but it is certainly explained partly. There’s no doubt that the kind of childhood I and the people of my generation had – playing out in the woods, climbing trees, damming streams and all that kind of outdoor life away from home – doesn’t happen any more. Most boys go straight home to their computer screens after school, and that technology combined with this supposed danger of lurking child-molesters at every corner, stops children going away from home as much as they once did. When I was eleven or twelve, we used to come right up into the city from Wimbledon Park and go beachcombing down by the Thames at Blackfriars, and get out on to the roof of St Paul’s, where you’re not supposed to go – all that kind of thing, which is unthinkable today. My parents would let me go off for the entire day and not expect to see me until the evening.

Was the experience of being an only child ever lonely or burdensome? 

No, I didn’t notice it at all. I don’t think I envied my friends who had brothers and sisters – it just seemed to me perfectly natural. Looking back on it I was rather glad actually, because it meant that I got more attention and I had a room to myself. I’ve always been very keen on privacy. Being in the army on national service was the worst torture, because I had to share a room with twenty-eight other people. There was never a second’s privacy, except in the lavatory.

You described yourself as being an adored child…did you ever feel the pressure of having to behave in a way that merited this adoration? 

Yes, but not oppressively so. They were very easy-going parents really. Later on when I seemed to be a student forever, my mother kept on at work to support me, so I did feel massively obligated at that time, and that made me work a bit harder than I otherwise might have done. I felt it was a terrific privilege, and I couldn’t bear to see other people lazing about at art school. In the army the men thought it astounding that I had reached the grand old age of nineteen without going to work and were quite indignant about it. I remember one Scotch chap who was a friend of mine saying, why the fucking hell should we pay for your fucking education, and I thought, yeah, quite a good point, why should you? There was a grant for all those years at art school paid for by the taxes of working people, and that gave me quite a guilt complex.

Would you say that the important decisions in your life were very much tempered by consideration for your parents? 

I’m not aware of having made any great important decisions really. It was more that I had my parents ingrained. The morality at that time consisted in hard work, being respectable, not doing anything too outrageous, and I suppose I inherited that. I mean, I didn’t go in a pub until after the army, I didn’t drink alcohol until I was twenty-two or so, which by today’s standards is incredible.

What about sex? 

That came terribly late too. I don’t think working class people of my parents’ generation and background were particularly active, certainly not if they wanted to be respectable. And of course in those days there wasn’t the pill, so people were kept fairly moral in the 1950s and there was a completely different attitude to sex.

And were you shy with women as a young man? 

Oh yes, absolutely. During my five years at grammar school, up to the age of fifteen, I’d scarcely spoken to a girl in that time. I was very underdeveloped physically, my voice hadn’t even broken, and it was absolutely terrible at school because for the first two or three years I was quite good at sport. But then at fourteen all these people in my class turned into great big men with enormous penises covered in hair, and I was still a little boy. I left school at the height of five foot two with a piping voice, and was plunged into art school with all these gorgeous girls of sixteen and eighteen. This didn’t give me much confidence on the women front.

But later on in life, did you consider sex important? 

Important, yes, but slightly intimidating. If you’re one of these terribly good-looking men, women chuck themselves at you all the time and are quite content to have a fling and forget it, but the women who would go for an ordinary chap like me were usually wanting a fairly deep relationship and had to fall in love. I was always fearful of involvement in that sense.

I gather from reading Ethel and Ernest that you rather disappointed your parents by choosing to go to art school – they would have much preferred you to have an office job and wear a collar and tie. Did you feel very sure of what you wanted to do? 

Yes, I wanted to be a cartoonist and I was determined to go to art school to learn to draw. I hated the grammar school anyway and wanted to get out of it, so my parents were terribly disappointed. To them art school was something completely foreign and incomprehensible and probably not very respectable. But they did support me, which was very good and broadminded of them.

The idea of being an artist must surely have seemed quite a romantic concept, not just for your parents but also for you at that time… 

Yes, being an artist in the painterly sense was terribly remote. When I went to art school I hadn’t even heard of Van Gogh, in fact I knew nothing about painting at all. My one idea was to draw cartoons. As for my parents, they thought of artists in terms of long hair, drink, nude women and general bohemianism, so it was very noble of them not to make more fuss.

You married Jean, who suffered from schizophrenia. That must have been very difficult… 

It’s a full-time occupation looking after someone with schizophrenia. Those who suffer from it have a very tenuous grasp on reality, and they have physical seizures, rather like epilepsy. There is also fainting and teeth-gritting to contend with, both of which are exhausting, and they can have delusions, actually seeing things in the room that aren’t there – although Jean didn’t have much of that. She suffered more from what’s called referential mania, where she would see a piece of writing and think it was a message for her of some kind, that someone was trying to tell her something. She saw significance in signs and notices, because schizophrenics are so intent on themselves that everything occurring in the outside world is somehow related to them. People can even think that the twigs blowing on a tree are somehow signalling about them.

Did you have any clear idea of the nature and extent of your wife’s mental-health problems when you married? 

Oh yes, yes. She’d been like it for some time. Schizophrenia quite often comes in the late teens, which it did with her, but she felt – and that’s what kept her going – that there was a cure round the corner. Sometimes it can disappear and then either come back or not come back; some people have florid periods for a couple of years and then no more, but other people suffer all their lives off and on with lucid intervals in between, and it has to be held down with drugs so that life becomes bearable. It’s quite a thing to live with. I don’t think one could have managed a child with it, quite apart from the child inheriting the blessed thing anyway…

There were ten years of marriage before your wife died. Presumably there were highs and lows in that time… 

Oh, yes. I myself think schizophrenia in one sense is a gift, by which I mean that the person is intently emotional and moved by things. They’re the very opposite of boring, because you never quite know what kind of mood they’re going to be in, either the depths of despair or tremendous elation, or claustrophobia or agoraphobia – all these things seem to come into it at different times.

How did you cope with the bad times? How did you stop yourself from going mad? 

I did get symptoms of fear, which sounds crazy now. I used to think: what are we going to do this evening? How are we going to get through the time from teatime to bedtime, this yawning gap of time? I felt fearful, and I developed slight claustrophobia which I’ve still got, dating from that time. For example, I don’t go on the tube. So you do become affected by it; you don’t catch schizophrenia itself, but you get a kind of nervous exhaustion from living with it, which produces its own symptoms.

She was young when she died, and it must have been very hard…was there a sense in which you were able to think about it as a release from suffering? 

Yes, I did think that. She was in hospital with leukaemia but continuing to have schizophrenic attacks, and I remember writing at the time that I had never seen such suffering. She had both things going on together, which was appalling.

Your latest book Ethel and Ernest, the story of your parents, is a way of making quite ordinary lives seem extraordinary in terms of the integrity of their daily existence, the dynamic of their marriage, and the values they embraced. It is also a handsome tribute to them. Was that important to you, to pay tribute to them, I mean, somehow to mark their lives? 

No, I didn’t do it with any kind of high-minded attitude of paying tribute to them; I just thought it would be interesting to look back on that time, particularly perhaps the house itself and the fact that they stayed in the same place for forty-one years, I just wanted to relive the whole thing, particularly the building, and of course their relationship. I was especially inspired by the way they met – the fact that my father was cycling along the road and my mum was dusting this big grand house and just walked to the window to shake the duster at that precise moment. It was split-second timing, and if the window had struck, or if he had stopped at the traffic lights or something, they would never have waved at each other. I always thought that was a marvellous story.

Are you in danger of romanticizing your parents, do you think, or the lives that they led? 

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve been sentimental, or idealized their lives. They had their rows and disagreements, but there were never any major breakdowns in their relationships at all, no affairs that I know of. My mother certainly didn’t, and my father – well, I don’t know what he did on the milk round, but I just think it most unlikely. There’s a scene in the book based on a story he told me where a chap asks him to deal with his highly sexed wife, but he politely refuses.

There is a dignity and simplicity about your parents’ story which you seem to suggest have all but vanished. Is that how you see it? 

It’s much more difficult for people today to lead that simple kind of life, partly because of television. My mother had never heard of homosexuality, for example, until she was over sixty, and even then she didn’t really quite believe it. Nowadays when marriages are under strain men can get on a plane and go to San Francisco for a business trip, and anything can happen while they’re there, whereas if you’re only going down the road to deliver milk there’s not so much chance.

One gets the feeling that although you profoundly admire what might be called the values of your parents, you do not necessarily share them…your world is much larger than theirs, you would not be shocked by the same things… 

Oh no, very much not. I’m not bothered by homosexuality or what people do at all. I think there was a terrible song and dance made about the Clinton business – it’s so boring, so irrelevant and uninteresting. What people do sexually is so desperately unimportant really.

Your parents never questioned anything, they simply accepted their lot and got on with that life threw at them. Nowadays the culture seems to be to question everything, to be concerned with rights much more than with duties. Is that a source of regret with you? 

One of the sad things that has happened is if you say the word ‘duty’ you immediately sound pompous and people start smirking behind their hands at the mention of the word. The theme of the film Brief Encounter, for example, was duty; two people madly in love, but they know they’ve got a duty to their wife and husband and their kids, and so they don’t proceed with their affair and ruin the lives of several other people, and I think that was admirable. People tend to laugh at that film now and think it’s a joke, but I don’t. I think it’s a shame that the concept of duty has almost disappeared.

There is quite a lot of political comment in your books…are you a political animal, would you say? 

Not terribly, other than having been broadly left-wing all my life, I suppose, and now slightly right-wing, which seems to happen to everyone as they get older. I still get incensed about the House of Lords, for example, all these hereditary peers able to contradict what the elected majority want to do. In that sense, I feel fairly in tune with the right-wingish Labour government we’ve got at the moment. I was passionately against the unions being over-powerful, as I think they were at one time – we used to have trouble even in my profession when the print unions refused artwork unless you had your chapel number on the back of it. I didn’t know what a chapel number was, but it turned out that the work of freelance artists was only accepted if you joined their union, which was insane, because they knew nothing about our kind of work. It was simply a dreadful kind of blackmail.

You describe yourself as having ‘an obsessive personality’. Has that been an advantage for your work, would you say? 

Yes. Unless I’m obsessed, I can’t get it done, and if it doesn’t obsess me there’s no point in doing it, because it means the idea is lukewarm. I’ve had several lukewarm ideas since I did Ethel and Ernest, but none of them has obsessed me enough to make me want to get on with it. I also get obsessions about silly things, you know, like collecting things.

What sort of things? 

Electric fires. It sounds lunatic, doesn’t it? But they all work, and if they don’t I get them repaired, but I’ve got more than I need to use, so I’d like to have a bigger place where I could use them all. I’d like to display them properly but I haven’t got room for them.

I get the impression you’re not a religious man…do you sometimes wish you could have the comforts of religion? 

Yes, but you can’t have the comforts without the pain. All this nonsense about having the heaven without the hell…well, I certainly don’t believe in hell, nor do I believe that the whole construct of the world came from a kind a loving God. If there is a God at all, I always say he must be an absolute bastard. I have seen what he does to people like my wife – all that suffering. Obviously people have to die, but they don’t have to die in prolonged agony. God could just let people fall asleep or fade away; they don’t have to suffer in this appalling way. So I don’t believe in God at all, and I’ve always disliked Christianity intensely. Indeed most religions seems to produce a state of mind which leads to warfare and killing.

You are quoted as saying: ‘Life’s ultimately sad, because people idealize their children.’ Can you explain what you meant by that remark? 

I just feel that when people have a new baby, things are absolutely wonderful, as of course they are, but then it seems to me that as time goes on things become less and less wonderful. The huge event is the birth, it’s supremely miraculous that this amazing creature has appeared from nowhere, and then they become more and more pedestrian the older they get. By the time they’re teenagers they have become fairly insufferable, and then when they grow out of that stage they turn out to be quite ordinary, like the people next door. So there’s a slight anticlimax to the whole thing; you might still love them, of course, but they’ve become fairly ordinary.

But you don’t think we idealize our children because they contain the future, they are symbols of hope? They might not turn out as we hope but if we stop hoping, is that not worse? 

Oh yes, it would be awful if people didn’t idealize their children – I would be exactly the same and, as you say, they are the future and each generation thinks they are going to get it right. It’s just that it doesn’t turn out that way.

Do you think you would have enjoyed parenthood? 

I think I’d have been all right at it, the worst soppy devoted parent imaginable and inclined to spoil the child. Thinking your children are wonderful is a form of conceit, and since I’m conceited anyway, I expect I would have thought my own children the best. But I Certainly wouldn’t have sent them away to prep school and public school – that’s something I always find incomprehensible.

Your books are also very much concerned with love. Ethel and Ernest, for example, can be read at one level as a moving love story. Are your books the vehicle for expressing love which you might find difficult to express more explicitly perhaps? 

I suppose that’s possible. I do believe that love is a good thing, as long as it’s not the kind of love which leads to insanity. The more enduring prosaic kind of love is terrific and it’s what society is founded on really; without that it wouldn’t be anything. Love makes life bearable.

How have you coped with the business of being famous, have you found it difficult? 

I don’t think I’m particularly famous. I’m certainly not famous to the extent that I get recognized in the street. That would be impossible to bear. I simply couldn’t cope with that. But the kind of mini-fame that I have is nothing to cope with at all. I did have a stalker recently who came about because of the so-called fame, and he shat on the doorstep when I wouldn’t do what he wanted. He wanted me to give him Bob Geldof’s phone number, but I scarcely know who Bob Geldof is, let alone what his phone number is.

Several of your books are concerned with the business of death or dying, either in terms of life being lived and coming to an end, as in Ethel and Ernest, or in terms of death being imposed by war, as in When the Wind Blows. Even The Snowman is about death. Have you always had this sense that life is a short and fragile thing, which can be snuffed out at any moment? 

I suppose so, but it becomes more apparent as you get older, especially when your contemporaries start dying. People under thirty think they’re going to live forever – that’s why they all smoke and think death doesn’t apply to them, but when your parents go and then your wife goes, you realize it’s very close. 

What is your attitude to your own death? 

I dread the stuff that comes before, but I don’t mind being dead. Larkin said he hated the idea of non-existence, but I can’t see what’s wrong with it, because if you don’t exist you’re not aware of not existing. It’s the ghastly lead up to death that can be so awful, and I’d like that to be quicker. I am quite a strong believer in euthanasia; when the situation is hopeless you should be able to get the hell out of it. That seems perfectly natural and reasonable to me. I saw a programme on television in which you actually saw the doctor give the chap the final injection. He was in his own home with his wife and he was able to say goodbye, and it seemed fine. We go to sleep every night so we might as well go to sleep for ever.

Thought for the Day

I have always reckoned that the more you read the more you realise that history repeats itself and that there is nothing new on the face of the earth.

As researchers keep finding out, many of the things that occur today go back as far as three thousand years ago, even such things as post-traumatic stress.

Warriors in ancient Iraq, now the battlefield of extreme Islamic insurgency, had been the first to suffer the excruciating stress as a result of hard battles carried out over a long period of time.

The first account of PTSD was believed to date from 490BC, following the Marathon Wars between the Greeks and the Persians. But researchers at Anglia Ruskin University discovered texts suggesting it could have existed as far back as 1300BC, during the Assyrian dynasty with the symptoms explained as being caused by the spirits of dead enemies, the victims killed in battle.

Researchers now believe men in Assyria suffered from PTSD because they had to fight every three years under National Service. Their new research paper says: ‘Ancient soldiers must have been just as terrified of swords, sling-stones or iron-hardened tips of arrows.’

Human beings never seem to change. Despite the progress of science and civilisation we remain instinctively with a barbaric streak that manifests itself when we are challenged, or when driven by conquest out of greed, or the compulsion to enslave others under the banner of glory.

The world in the twenty-first century has not learned from past conflicts and is now like a boiling pot ready to overspill if the fire is not contained or switched off.

Is strife inherent in our genes? I don’t for a minute belief this to be the case. It is perhaps our competitive culture that’s behind it all. A top dog scenario is like the trigger of a gun raring to be pulled to achieve our goal, irrespective of the damage we inflict on others.

The power of supremacy can create a dimension of evil hard to stifle or keep in check, for our nature is perhaps the ultimate culprit.

Gayet Surfaces Yet Again

François Hollande’s role in trying to broker a peace deal between Russia and the Ukraine – accompanying the German chancellor Angela Merkel – has to some degree enhanced his otherwise falling popularity and given him some credence in political circles where he has been constantly the target of derision.

His love life, however, seems to hound him without any signs of respite.

Women have so far been the cause of his nagging fall from grace and it seems that his addiction to them has a buffoonish edge to it.

His on-and-off squeeze Julie Gayet, the actress and producer, landed him in trouble again last week after it emerged that she has used a government car for a four-hundred-mile round trip to a film set accompanied by two state employees, one of them Mr Hollande’s bodyguard, according to photographs published by Closer, the glossy magazine.

One was the agent the magazine pictured last year taking croissants to a flat opposite the Elysées, where Mr Hollande would visit Ms Gayet for trysts, wearing a moped helmet as disguise.

‘We know that the bodyguard has privileged links with the president, or at least very attached to him, so she is effectively being treated and protected like the First Lady, without having the status,’ said Laurent Pieau, the editor-in-chief of Closer.

She said the photos, which had been ‘given’ to the magazine rather than commissioned, were in the public interest.

‘Today, (Miss Gayet) has no official presence. This hypocrisy must end,’ she told BFMTV.

Sebastien Huyghe, spokesman for the Opposition Union for a Popular Movement, said: ‘If Ms Gayet is the official partner of the president, she should say so and it would be proper for the state to ensure her protection. But if that is not the case, there is no reason to use public funds to accompany, transport and protect Ms Gayet.’

Gerard Carreyrou, at Europel radio station, said Mr Hollande’s behaviour was reminiscent of that of François Mitterand, the socialist president elected in 1981, who kept his mistress and their child at the palace without the public knowing until 1994.

However, the difference in my view between Hollande and Mitterand is that the latter was a wily old fox who had the respect of the nation in general, while the former is struggling to keep his head above water with the constant threat of drowning.

I believe that Hollande’s best bet is to marshal his willy to some sort of discipline, and come out clean by admitting that his libido is perhaps more pronounced than most of his other activities – including politics. Then the French will start to love him and his popularity will soar as his menu will have politics as the hors-d’oeuvre, sex in a variety of positions as the main course, and dessert as a well-earned siesta to refuel his energies.

Who can now say that the French presidency is not every man’s dream of heaven on earth? Those cynics who believe there is a better place, let them show their hand and prove me wrong. I will then eat my words and seek refuge in a monastery.

How Sexy are our Politicians?

Mothers are the best barometers available to judge which politician they think would make the best lover.

They should know, for motherhood goes through stages where their bodies and love lives constantly experience a transformation as a result of the miraculous conception they undergo by giving life to another human being.

In a recent survey, mothers have disclosed how they rated the sexiness of politicians who are vying for their votes.

One member of Mumsnet, the parenting website, called Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, a ‘sexy beast’ while another said he looks ‘capable and meaty’.

The first description, I can understand, while the second one is rather vague. Looks capable of what, I may ask? Whereas ‘meaty’ is not necessarily a complimentary term. Pejorative perhaps, who knows?

Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, was described as ‘mysterious and moody’. An accurate perception, but does not tell much about his bedroom antics – if any.

As for Boris Johnson, the bonking mayor, he was seen as ‘fun’. No doubt he is, in all manners of speech, and a confident sexual performer to boot. 

Ed Miliband fared less well in the discussion, which involved four hundred women, as did David Cameron.  Many mothers said they would rather have a night of passion with the Labour leader’s brother David.

David looks good and rather flirty, but how capable is he in bed? This is another side of his, which needs exploring.

One user said, ‘David Cameron is a bit too arrogant to be generous in the bedroom.’ Maybe so, but he certainly does not ooze with carnal appeal. I can’t see him as a heartthrob.

Others thought George Osborne would be ‘fumbling’, Tony Blair would want to look in a mirror, and with Nick Clegg it would be over very quickly.

What a brilliant commentary of the last three. Fumbling is a word that characterises Osborne beautifully, while Blair’s mirrorphobia is something he projects so well.

And as for Nick Clegg, he could be the dark horse and perhaps prove us all wrong. It is a pity his wife Miriam was not asked to shed light on his performance outside politics.

Maybe she will, if she thinks that will boost his chances of surviving the forthcoming general election…

Brian Sewell in a New Light

Just a teaser to alert my good friends who habitually read my blog that a new book by Brian Sewell, targeting adults and children of a certain age, will be published by Quartet Books in early March.

There will be a lot of media coverage and we expect the book to appeal to a large majority of the public, who know and admire the author for both his literary skills and his undeniable mastery of the written word.

It will be his first work of fiction – at the age of eighty-three – and will certainly garner a great deal of unprecedented interest and, hopefully, a new league of followers will emerge to discover that Brian is not only the best art critic we have, but also an intellectual giant who never ceases to surprise us with his bag of talents.

So be ready to order your copy before the rush begins, and be among the first to enjoy a moving story that brings tears to your eyes but also leaves the reader in a joyful mood that will linger in his or her memory for many years to come.

Beautifully illustrated by Sally Ann Lasson, the famous cartoonist, who has magically added a visual enchantment to Brian’s narrative  -turning the book into a gem hard to resist. At £9.99 it’s a giveaway to treasure.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield in 1939 and educated at the Mound School, York, a Quaker boarding school.

She won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she achieved a double first in English. She published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, in 1962. This was followed by other novels including The Garrick Year (1964), The Millstone (1966), The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Radiant Way (1987), The Witch of Exmoor (1996), The Peppered Moth (2001), The Seven Sisters (2002), The Red Queen (2004), The Sea Lady (2006) and The Pure Gold Baby (2013). She has also published biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and was one time editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

I interviewed her in February 2000.

For most writers childhood is a fertile ground, particularly, it seems, if it has been unhappy, as yours was by all accounts. Do you think the unhappy childhood, however clichéd, helps the creative process? 

Yes. An unhappy childhood gives you a lot of material, and it’s much easier to remember unhappiness than happiness. Some writers have had very happy childhoods which give them a sort of golden time to write about, but for me personally it’s been very useful to have had a lot of grievances and miseries to look back on. They may be exaggerated in later life but they give you an argument with the world.

It is only comparatively recently that you have felt able to talk about your rather dark and troubled childhood that was tyrannized over by your depressive mother. Have you managed to lay the ghosts, would you say? 

I’ve just finished a novel about my mother, and I found it really hard to write because she is a difficult memory. While she was alive I was always thinking two ways: that I must keep her happy and that I must try to keep things going. And it’s taken me all these years since she died in 1983 to come to terms with everything.

Do you miss her? 

I don’t miss her at all. While I was writing the novel I thought about her a lot, on the whole quite miserably. But just occasionally I would have a dream in which she was happy and we were having a nice time. Then I really felt that I was redeeming things, but that happened very rarely. I miss my father, but that’s another matter.

Did your mother have any qualities that you admired? 

Yes, she had many admirable qualities. For example, she was very honest, not about herself but about other people; she wasn’t a deceiving woman, and she was very proud of her children. But she also had this depressive, manipulative quality which made dealing with her extremely difficult. It was so hard for my father, and for all of us. She imposed her sense of what was wrong with the world on those around her, and it cast a big shadow.

How did your father cope with her? 

He was always trying to placate her, to make life pleasant for her, but it was never enough and he never succeeded. They both came from very humble backgrounds, but he did well in the world, becoming a barrister and then a QC, and he was always so careful; to get good domestic help, but it was never quite enough for her. He took her on holidays but she always wanted a bigger or better holiday – she could never be satisfied. My theory is that it was because she had no career. She was a clever woman who had lived in the period when you didn’t do anything but look after your children, and I think she must have resented us very much. She never said she did, but I do think that if she had been born a bit later she would have had a better time.

Your childhood is generally packaged by journalists into a neat tale of sibling rivalry with your older sister Antonia Byatt. Is the truth more complex than the stuff of journalism? 

Much more complex. There was rivalry in the sense that Antonia was very jealous when I was born, but that is an absolutely commonplace situation, the older child being jealous when the second is born. What the journalists never comment on is that I have another sister and a brother, so the situation extends beyond the two sisters who happen to be in the public eye. We were a family, and I think my sister, indeed both my sisters, would agree that the problems were with our mother and not with each other. My mother was a very ambitious woman for her children, and if we slipped a bit or didn’t get the top A grade, she was very critical. There was a sense of having to do the best all the time, which is very difficult with siblings, even when they’re close and supportive of one another. A competitive situation can be made worse by praising one child at the expense of another, and that certainly went on.

But was there a time in your life when you and Antonia had a warm relationship? 

Oh yes, we were very close. As the younger sister, I adored Antonia. I thought she was wonderful and I used to listen to her as if hers was the voice of the Lord. We used to play amazingly complicated games, with my younger sister as well, and it was only when we grew older that we split. But that again is normal; children do grow apart when they get older.

The family feud theory is one that appeals to those interested in the private lives of authors, but how much of the so-called ‘rift’ between you is to do with family reserve and a way of coping with fame in the same field? 

Coping with fame in the same field is certainly difficult. I think Antonia said at some point that she really wished that I had stayed being an actress because it would have been much more convenient for her, but unfortunately that’s not what I ended up doing. I wanted to be a novelist and so did she, and in those early years she saw us very much in competitive terms. However, being in the same field isn’t necessarily difficult for people. For example, my first husband was an actor and his brother also became an actor. There has been the occasional mix-up when they have been cast by mistake for each other – a potentially nightmare situation – but those two brothers are close and good to each other. I wish my sister and I could have been a bit more supportive rather than allowing ourselves to be set in opposite camps. It’s a pity. I do greatly admire my sister’s work and I am always very excited when she rings me up.

You say that you and your sister followed unquestioningly the pattern which your mother had mapped out for both. Were you aware of that at the time, or was this something that became apparent only in retrospect? 

It became apparent in retrospect. At the time I was quite happy to go along with the programming. My mother wanted us all to go to Cambridge University, so all four of us went to Cambridge University. I now see I should have gone to Oxford, and if I had, then all might have been different. Antonia and I would have belonged to different worlds – she would have been a Cambridge writer and I’d have been an Oxford writer. But I wanted to please my mother because she was unhappy.

How did your younger sister and brother fit into the family situation? Were their lives also mapped out? 

Yes, they were. My younger sister was also sent off to Cambridge, but she made the big decision after her first year to change from English literature (which my mother had read) to art history. It was very sensible and she became a very successful art historian. My brother had the advantage of being programmed by my father. He went to Downing, my father’s college, and he became a lawyer and later a QC. He also had the good luck to be at university in the 1960s when everybody was rebellious, so he had a slightly different experience of Cambridge from the rest of us. It has worked out fine for Richard, although he had a difficult time with my mother, being very much the youngest and isolated with her for years because of the family structure.

Why do you think that you, the second daughter, became your mother’s favourite? Did the fact that you seemed to have inherited her tendency to depression have anything to do with it?

That’s a very interesting question. I never thought of it that way, but it’s possible, yes. Both Antonia and I were quite highly strung. She was a delicate child, quite dangerously asthmatic as a little girl, and I was depressive with a bad stammer, so we both had problems. My mother’s line on my sister’s asthma was very unsympathetic. She was quite Yorkshire and she just said, well, you’ve got to learn to live with it. She was hard with both of us and I really don’t know why I became the favourite. Perhaps it was because I was more patient with her, whereas Antonia got really fed up. I paid her more attention, and that lasted until she died.

Have you tried to avoid having a favourite child of your own, and have you succeeded? 

I have tried passionately not to have a favourite child, and I can honestly say that my favourite child alternates day by day. At times I feel my eldest is closest because he’s intellectual; then I think my daughter’s the closest; and then I think my youngest boy with his little children is my darling.

Your mother suffered very severely from depression, yet you say you were able to control yours and even to forget about being depressed. This does not sound like clinical depression – was it perhaps straightforward unhappiness with you? 

It’s possible. It’s also possible that my mother wasn’t clinically depressed; she just had no outlet. When I was at Cambridge in the late 1950s the world was just opening up in the most thrilling way, not only for women but for young people generally, whereas when my mother was at Cambridge things were difficult. She couldn’t get a job, and so she was driven in on herself. I think I am depressive by nature, but I’m never manic. I just go through black patches when things don’t seem worth doing.

Do you agree with your mother that you suffered because of heightened awareness, or do you think it is to do with a chemical imbalance? 

I really don’t know. I feel in my case it is something much more spiritual, a sort of melancholy that comes over me.

You attend the Mount School in York, a Quaker boarding school. Was it something of a relief to be sent away to boarding school, would you say? 

Yes, I loved it, and I was very happy there most of the time. It was a good school and I had good friends there, one or two of whom I still see. There were things that I didn’t like about it, but by and large it suited me very well.

Why were you sent to a Quaker school? 

Very complicated reasons. My parents were quite left-wing and didn’t want to send us to a snobbish girls’ school where you learned to be a lady, and also they quite liked the moral seriousness of the Quakers and the egalitarian idea of decent people together. They wanted the best of both worlds really.

You have described your father as ‘a very good man’. What does that mean in your terms? 

He was kind, he was fair, he was generous, and he was sensitive to his children. He was a completely unpretentious man, he thought a great deal about social issues, he believed in a better world, and he was always worrying about other people. He was also a gentle man, too gentle perhaps.

Your criticism of your mother is understandable, but have you come to feel compassion for her, perhaps as you yourself have got older? 

In a way I have always felt compassion. I have always believed that she had a bad deal, both historically and personally. But, yes, I think I now understand more what it was that she suffered from. The actual causes of her feeling so unhappy are clearer to me now than they were; but I always felt sorry for her, always.

How difficult has it been to avoid becoming your mother? Is that something you have consciously resisted? 

I’ve tried to, but I now hear myself saying some of the things that she said. However, I honestly don’t think I impose my will on my children in the same way – maybe if anything I’ve gone too far the other way. I think I should have watched them a bit more closely at certain points and been a bit more pushy on their behalf.

You describe marriage at twenty-one as being ‘the only way to make one’s sex life acceptable to one’s parents’. Do you think the reasons for marriage nowadays are any more soundly based?

Yes, I think that people who choose to get married have thought quite seriously about why they want to enter into this state and what it means to them in terms of commitment. A lot of my generation married just to get away from home, but marriage now is much more of a choice than an escape hole.

Your first novel, you say, was the result of loneliness and joblessness. Do you believe that if you had an interesting job and felt completely fulfilled by marriage and motherhood that there might have been no novels? 

It is perfectly possible. If I had found employment as an actress or if I had been perfectly happy and busy I might never have found time to write a book. My first husband and I were both in love with the theatre in those days. We actually met in an amateur production of an Ibsen play at Cambridge – he became a very good actor and I was not a bad actress. But there were far fewer parts for actresses; it was a much more difficult career than being an actor.

Your early novels are very strong on portraying the complexity of feelings accompanying motherhood, which is presented with all its conflicting demands and frustrations. And yet you say somewhere that motherhood for you has been ‘the greatest joy in the world’. Is this a feeling which came retrospectively, as it were, once the early experience of motherhood had been lived through? 

No, I think I felt it all the time. I wasn’t very keen on being pregnant, it’s true, and I thought the whole thing was a big mistake, but as soon as I saw this little creature I was completely enraptured and have remained so ever since. Of course, there are difficulties, and my early novels were written to cater for a clientele of mothers who were having a terribly time, but even the mothers having a terrible time are also having a wonderful time. What I felt when I saw that first baby was always with me; it was always the most important thing. And this is true for the majority of women – it’s the most important experience of their lives.

The heroine of The Millstone describes the experience of pregnancy and motherhood and says at one point, ‘I am sure that my discoveries were common discoveries; if they were not, they would not be worth recording.’ Was that your own experience too, that the new things you discovered about yourself were part of something universal? 

Yes, it was like suddenly being part of the human race. All the way through school and college, I had been pushed into some special position and told to be different. But suddenly there was this totally common bond.

 Time and again in your novels there seems to be a concern with the most ordinary experiences in life… 

Yes, I think extraordinary experiences are interesting, but ordinary experiences are what make us what we really are.

Is there a deliberate attempt on your part to ‘de-intellectualize’ the business of living, to demonstrate that the truth is all around us, not simply in the scholarly pursuits? 

That is absolutely correct. It’s not that I don’t respect scholarship, it’s just that I feel a lot of what is very important is not understood by scholars, not accessible to them. I particularly value the common bonds rather than things that set people apart.

Your heroine in The Waterfall, Jane Grey, says at one point: ‘I could have turned myself into one of those mother women who ignore their husbands and live through their children. But with me, this did not happen; my ability to kiss and care for and feed and amuse a small child merely reinforced my sense of division – I felt split between the anxious intelligent woman and the healthy and efficient mother.’ How much do these words reflect your own experience of those days? 

They certainly reflect a period in my life when I felt that my entire milieu was being used by children, and that the woman in me was not being allowed to speak at all. When you are a young mother there are a lot of conflicts; you can’t be sexually attractive, look after a baby, clean the house, and in my case write a book all at the same time. It’s less of a problem for women now than it used to be, because women are allowed more roles, more freedom than before.

Jane Grey is an example of what has been referred to as ‘the brains and breast dichotomy’ – this was presumably something you yourself experienced rather acutely. Do you think it was resolved satisfactorily in your case? 

It was resolved, yes. I have had a perfectly satisfying intellectual life and a perfectly satisfying physical life, so I guess I have no complaints at all. I think I had the capacity to be a don, in which case I would probably have read a lot more books and been able to understand deconstruction and all the things that I find quite difficult intellectually; but I don’t regret not being a don, because I have had so many other things that I might not otherwise have had.

Do you believe that what can perhaps be articulated and resolved in fiction often remains inexplicable and unresolvable in life, and in oneself? 

Yes. Quite often in fiction one is describing a dilemma that is a perpetual dilemma, and one invents characters who solve it and you can feel as a result that you’ve solved it in life, but in fact it comes bouncing back at you. The business of my mother is a case in point; through fiction you can make a shape out of it that satisfies you for a while; but you can’t really resolve it.

Doris Lessing, whom I know you admire, said, ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.’ Are you inclined to agree with her? 

I know what she means, but on the other hand I am also quite interested in the truths that you can’t fit into fiction. I know Doris found her mother just as difficult as I found mine, and she eventually came to the conclusion that her mother had been driven mad by the First World War. That situation fuelled all her fiction, but it was only in writing her two volumes of memoirs that Doris discovered what her mother was really like. So there is fiction, but there is also fact, and it’s very strange when the fact seems to contradict the fictions that you’ve made out of it. It’s a very rich area and constant two-way process.

You are being described in your own Oxford Companion to English Literature as being associated with early feminism. Can you perhaps elaborate on what you understood by feminism then, and what it means to you today? 

With early feminism it was a question of equal rights, educational opportunities, equal pay, access to the professions, and also, absolutely crucially, it was to do with nursery-school provision. When I had my babies there were no state nurseries at all. This is still a problem but at least we know that we are thinking about it. A lot of the issues to do with providing mothers with support are exactly the same, but the process of feminism is completely irreversible – I don’t think we will ever go back. Every now and then there’s a backlash and we are all told that it is very bad for mothers to go out to work in some ways, but we are never again going to see women staying at home in the way that my mother stayed at home. The future of feminism is making it happen for the benefit of everybody, for women, for children, and for men, so that they don’t feel pushed out of the side of the frame. When I was young, feminism was very much a sense of wanting to choose your own life and that has now happened to a large extent.

But do you think it is still a man’s world? 

Not totally. It seems to me that young men, my sons and their age group, are very helpful in ways that husbands used not to be, so I think that women have much less to complain about. Women are taken into account much more than they used to be.

Do you dislike what Doris Lessing called ‘the shrill voice of feminism’? 

[laughter] Doris has been very much got at by feminists who tell her that she ought to agree with everything they say, and being a very independent-minded woman, she doesn’t agree with everything they say. I myself certainly get very irritated with feminist literary critics who tell me how to write my books, so that particular kind of shrill voice I dislike very much.

There is a high degree of social comment in your novels, and a concern with moral problems. Do you think that writers have a moral responsibility towards their readers? 

I greatly admire writers like Proust and James Joyce, and they have no sense of moral responsibility whatsoever. I am more in the mould of the writer who worries about social inequality and the disadvantaged. I was brought up to think about these things, and to me it is a natural way of writing, to try and include in my fiction a sense of the world we live in and the injustices in it. But I don’t go to extremes – I’m not a didactic writer like George Orwell. I am a bit of a moralist in that I am always looking around and wondering if things could be better; that’s all really.

Your 1996 novel, The Witch of Exmoor, is concerned with the possibility of social justice, touching on racial prejudice, greed, factory farming, and so on…it is quite a bleak picture you paint in some ways… 

That novel is a sort of satire really – it is meant to be more funny than bleak. It caricatures a number of ridiculous things that go on in our society. And I must say that I found the BSE business really shocking and completely fascinating. The whole saga was very much a product of greed, and it probably needs a real satirist, a Jonathan Swift, to deal with it. But I don’t take a bleak view at all. I think that life is very much pleasanter in Western democracies for most people than it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago; not perfect, but better.

Has New Labour done anything to alleviate your concern about social inequality, or have you been disappointed in the government? 

I was very disappointed to begin with because I felt it was all talk and photo opportunities, but they have in fact increased the minimum wage, and it was they who introduced it in the first place. I feel that I now have more faith in their long-term agenda than I did at the beginning. Gordon Brown in being very clever in redistributing wealth to some degree, something which is much needed because in certain parts of England poverty is absolutely endemic. Tony Blair says there is no north and south divide, but he should go and have a walk round South Yorkshire where my parents came from. It’s dismal there, and the depression is emotional as well as economic. There are no jobs and life is quite without prospect for a lot of people. I can’t stand the jargon of phrases like social exclusion, but nevertheless they do mean something. This government is at least beginning to try to bring people into society again. So I’ll give them another term or two, and I wish them well.

According to Roy Hattersley, in a recent Guardian profile, you reject the idea of a fellowship at Newham because the cleaning woman who made your bed every day and laid your fire would have been on your conscience for life. Some people might think this a kind of snobbery masquerading as egalitarianism… 

I don’t think that’s quite what I said to Roy. What I meant was that a fellowship was so seductive that if I accepted I could see myself never being able to get out of my ivory tower. I’m sure that if I had taken it I would never have written the novels, because I would only ever have seen the world with my made bed in it and my laid fire. I was really talking about the dangers of being cosseted to the extent that you can’t see what the world is made of.

The heroine of your novel The Needle’s Eye sacrifices her own happiness ‘for the sake of the children’ – that well-worn phrase – and the novel deals in depth with the lovelessness that often passes for marital love. Do you think the moral problems presented in The Needle’s Eye remain as relevant today as thirty years ago? 

Even more relevant, because fortunately it’s easier to get divorced than it used to be. Sticking together for the children is not always a good idea. I know a lot of people disagree with me, but having been divorced myself, and being on excellent terms with my first husband, I just know that it was right for us and the children.

Some feminist critics, were disappointed in the message of that novel – they swathe heroine choosing self-sacrifice over self-knowledge. Would you write it differently today? 

I do think today that she probably wouldn’t have made that decision. But she was a slightly masochistic character actually; she suffered from guilt through having far too much money, so psychologically it was a perfectly convincing portrait.

I think it’s fair to say that your novels are concerned with moral problems and ambiguities. Do you believe that there are any moral absolutes? 

I feel very strongly about one or two issues – capital punishment, for example. I believe that the state should not kill. I also feel very strongly about cruelty; we should not ever be cruel physically to anyone, and we should try not to be cruel mentally either. The trouble is that life is full of ambiguity, and cultures are all relative.

What are your own guiding principles? 

Oddly enough, one of my guiding principles comes from my Quaker background. I’m not a Quaker myself, nor even a believer, but I do agree with the Quakers when they say there is the light of God in every man. I do believe that there is arguably in every human being something good or redeemable, and if you treat them as contemptible or negligible. People become better if you believe they’re better, and I suppose that’s something I’ve clung to.

Your mother was a declared atheist, and your father a half-hearted Church of England adherent. What effect did this rather mixed-up religious background have on you? 

My father did have quite a religious temperament actually, and in fact both my parents became Quakers later. And a lot of Quakerism does appeal, but it’s a very sad matter to me that I can’t believe in the Almighty God. Just occasionally I have moments of apparent certainty when I think that perhaps it isn’t just black space, and I think this comes from the Quakers. They have no dogma, just the idea that you keep striving, and any kind of movement towards the spirit is considered good. The other day I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on the way up to Sheffield, and I just knew there was a God, and then of course as soon as the music was over, it was gone; but there are moments of profound conviction.

Do you pray? 

Yes, I do, but I don’t know who I’m praying to. If I think something bad is happening to the children, then I do look upwards and say, let it not happen, but I don’t try to make bargains the way I used to.

As a child you managed to convince yourself that you had committed what you called ‘a sin against the Holy Ghost’ – where did this idea come from? 

I just don’t know. Children used to be tormented by hellfire a lot in those days, but I certainly didn’t have that at school or at home, so I don’t know where I got it from. It could have been an overactive imagination, I suppose, but I really did feel terrible for quite a long time. I had this sense of profound guilt and sin, which I never have now.

Don’t you ever suffer from guilt now? 

Only perfectly justified guilt, when I’ve done something awful, but I never feel that sense of overwhelming guiltiness.

Have you ever had any kind of what might be termed a religious experience, any sense of the numinous? 

Yes, I have that that from nature. If I got for a walk in the country, I can feel completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. There’s a walk I do regularly in Somerset, up the back behind our house, and in the evening it is just amazingly beautiful. Your heart stands still and you feel that the whole world is full of design and beauty and order. It also gives you a sense of eternity because you feel that when you are gone this beautiful world will still be here.

Have you ever longed for what are usually referred to as the comforts of religion? 

No, because I suppose I have always felt that people who seem very secure have probably been through doubt. The religious people I respect most, like the Bishop of Edinburgh, are rather full of doubt themselves. I know that there is comfort in the natural world so I don’t want the comforts of religion. We must all find our own spiritual comfort where we can, and I can’t find mine in any kind of creed or ritual.

The Guardian reports that you have become detached from the world’s vanities, refusing to be nominated for prizes, finding little interest in reviews and giving support to worthy causes. Is this the result of a happy second marriage with your husband Michael Holroyd? 

It always sounds better than it really is, because there are days when I’m absolutely full of rage and irritation and overwhelmed by petty, petty feelings. But on the whole I am much calmer than I used to be, and Michael has been a very good influence because he takes the longer view on things. When I get very upset and overwrought, he points at something just slightly beyond it, and that’s very good for me.

You have described the times in which we live as ‘a particularly pointless age’? Can you elaborate on that? 

I must have said that when I was in a bad temper because I don’t feel that at all. I actually think it is rather an exciting, positive and open age. I’m a disappointed optimist in that I thought by now we would have a more even society, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor, that we wouldn’t have sink schools or terrible children’s homes. I thought all that would have vanished by now, and we would all be living in a much more egalitarian, happy, sharing world. That hasn’t happened, but on the other hand it hasn’t turned out too badly either.

Remembering Dennis Potter

The unexpected and untimely death of Lynsey de Paul last October reminded me of a very special time in the early 1980s when I produced the movie Brimstone and Treacle.

I first got to know Dennis Potter when Quartet published his novel version of his award-winning BBC television series, Pennies from Heaven. He and I hit it off straight away, though he was a famously complex and cantankerous character. This was largely the result of the terrible chronic illness he suffered from most of his adult life. Known as psoriatic arthropothy, it affected his skin and his joints. He had to endure constant physical pain and was incapacitated in many ways, which gave him a focus for his anger.

Despite these handicaps, he was a man of the most remarkable achievements whose delving into the seedy depths of human motivation riveted his audience. He had a feeling for the drama and its need to defy convention which gave his work a rare quality seldom equalled by any of his contemporaries.

He had an obsessive nature that in some ways was not dissimilar to my own. Artistically he was driven and inflexible. He loved a quarrel and his relationships with close associates were always tempestuous. This was especially true with Kenith Trodd, who worked with Potter over many years on his television projects. Theirs was a relationship that oscillated between love and hate and caused consternation within their circle.

Dennis’s perception of women was strange as well as intriguing. He was attracted to the dissolute type of woman whose sexual vibes stir man’s most basic instincts. He certainly preferred the image of woman as sinful to the idea of her as pure.

The seething underbelly of nightlife with all its sexual connotations was a theme he was drawn to explore time and time again. The association between disgust and guilt was very real for him. Somehow he felt at home in an environment where prostitutes lurked or had a dominant presence. But his was a unique talent and his output was prodigious, given the health constraints under which he worked.

Of my own involvement I said in an interview with Screen International in early 1982 that ‘investing in films is a logical progression to my publishing activities’, that ‘I’ve always been interested in the media and I’ve always wanted to take risks. I do not see the point in investing in things that you know are going to work. For me the gamble of doing something you believe in is vitally important’.

Dennis told the Daily Mirror that in his ambition for the play to be turned into a film he was prepared to work for nothing to see the project through.

The subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle was guaranteed to attract controversy. In the mixed reception given to the movie by the critics after its London première in September 1982, discussion undoubtedly centred more on its theme than its artistic merit. There was a general consensus that Sting’s performance was a triumph, and most commentators agreed he was not its only revelation and Brimstone and Treacle was definitely a film to watch out for. It was remarked that it represented ‘a most impressive move into film production for the publishing impresario Naim Attallah’.

The party following the première was a lavish affair at a mansion in Regent’s Park. Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson were there, deep in conversation with Captain Sensible (wearing a skirt), while Lynsey de Paul giggled with her new man, designer Carl Dawson. Sting arrived alone but was soon surrounded by a cluster of beautiful women, including Selina Scott and the singer Marsha Hunt. Everyone at the gathering heaped praise on Sting for his acting ability. ‘He was so good, he made me sick,’ joked Bob Geldof.

Sting was in his element as he gasped, ‘It’s all so amazing.’ His sudden transition from rock star to film star left him quite bemused. Even the great photographer, Helmut Newton, who took the publicity photos for the film and had seen plenty of sights in his time, was dazzled by the event.

When Quartet gave Dennis Potter a commission to write a novel treatment for Brimstone and Treacle, he passed the task over to his daughter Sarah, whom he was encouraging to do some writing. His utter devotion to Sarah suggested she was the closest to him of all the women in his life.

Remembering people and events such as these are simply a tonic to keep us going in old age which, by and large, has its own limitations.

The Debilitating Curse

A lot of people are now suffering from the dreadful Alzheimer’s, which seems to incapacitate brain function to the point where memory gradually gets worse and those inflicted become dependent on the mercy of others.

Combating the disease is a major undertaking for the medical profession which has not so far made any headway in finding a cure.

However, it seems that the secrets of a squirrel’s hibernation could hold the key to preventing it.

Other devastating conditions, including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, could also be avoided or delayed thanks to a British breakthrough.

Scientists from the Medical Research Council in Leicester have shown how deep hibernation-like sleep ‘cools down the brain’ and protects it from degenerative diseases.

The discovery could lead to a drug that prevents a host of crippling illnesses. – and, if taken in middle age, it could keep the brain stay healthy for longer.

Alzheimer’s charities described the research as ‘exciting’ and said it could have ‘wide-reaching benefits’.

Giovanna Mallucci got the idea for her research after hearing what happens to a squirrel’s brain when it hibernates.

‘When the animal’s body temperature drops to conserve energy during its long winter slumber, connections between brain cells are broken. This stops messages being sent from cell to cell and helps put the brain into a deep sleep.’

When the squirrels come out of hibernation, cell-to-cell connections – or synapses – re-form and work so perfectly that the squirrel can remember exactly where it hid its stash of nuts.

Because broken synapses are a classic early feature of neurodegenerative diseases in people, Professor Mallucci decided to see if she could fix them.

She gave healthy mice a drug that cooled them down to the 16-18 degrees centigrade of hibernating squirrels and put them in a deep sleep. The synapses of the mouse broke up and re-formed when they warmed up again – and levels of a protein called ‘RBM3’ rose.

‘In contrast, mice in the very early stages of an Alzheimer’s-like illness were unable to reform their synapses when coming out of hibernation. And they did not make more RBM3. However, when these mice were given an injection that raised levels of RBM3, the brain connections reformed,’ according to the science journal Nature. ‘If RBM3 also keeps human synapses healthy, a drug that increases levels could keep Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases at bay.’

Professor Hugh Perry, a Medical Research Council neuroscientist, said: ‘We now need to find something to reproduce the effect of brain cooling. Just as anti-inflammatory drugs are preferable to cold baths in bringing down a high temperature, we need to find drugs which can induce the effects of hibernation.’

Dr Eric Karran, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: ‘This research is at an early stage and will need exploring further in humans before we know whether it could be developed into an effective treatment for diseases like Alzheimer’s. There is currently a desperate lack of effective treatment options for people with dementia. Research to uncover the key biological mechanisms keeping brain cells healthy is important, as it provides more avenues for investigation in the search for treatments that could make a real difference to people’s lives.’

In brief, the key to all this is brain cooling. During hibernation synapses – the connections between brain cells vital for the transmission of messages and processing information – are broken, letting the brain cool. When squirrels emerge from their deep sleep, the synapses reconnect perfectly – and the Medical Research Council Study showed that a protein called RB13 is vital to this.

It is hoped that a drug that raises levels of RB13 and keeps the synapses intact will also keep the brain healthy. This could mean delaying the onset of dementia – or even preventing it.

If such a drug could be produced then people will be thankful to the squirrels whose contribution will for evermore be in the annals that celebrate the interchanging of data between animals and humans which made all this possible.

Where We Stand Today

Having lived in this country since the age of eighteen and assimilated into the very depths of the Establishment, I have seldom encountered a period where politics have sunk so low and a form of thuggery has infiltrated many of the things we once held in great reverence.

All we have to do today is open our newspapers and be horrified by what we read.

Paedophiles galore in every strata of society, politicians fiddling their expenses, tycoons accused of tax evasion, banks ripping off their customers, financial institutions a cover up for unlawful transactions, and money laundering on a grand scale.

As if that’s not enough, the margin between rich and poor has reached unacceptable levels and shows no sign of retreating. The middle classes have become the nouveau pauvres, and are feeling the brunt of an unfair imposition on their earnings, while the very rich continue to enjoy untold advantages since their assets keep multiplying on a yearly basis – even in an age where economic conditions have led to a bout of austerity measures that have a devastating effect on those with limited income.

To make matters more sordid, politicians from every party are now engaged in a battle of meaningless words, accusing each other of corruption, while each is collecting donations from dodgy individuals to enable them to carry out their election vitriolic to secure power at the next general election in May.

It is hard to believe what’s going on, given the widespread unveiling of scandalous shortcomings that seem to emerge as the heat of debate gathers pace.

Labour, in my view, are now a party where socialist dogma of the kind they preach makes them a disastrous choice, while the Conservatives, despite their many inadequacies, are the lesser of two evils.

However, I wish they’d forsake their lightweight utterings which, on occasion, make them look rather foolish and incredibly pedestrian.

I sincerely hope that the next administration devote themselves to serving the nation as a whole and bring back the dignity of politics to where it should be.

Until that happens, we remain a divided society with falling standards and an infectious disdain for politics.

Sir Fred Catherwood

Fred Catherwood was president of the Evangelical Alliance from 1992. He was born in Co. Londonderry in 1925 and educated in Shrewsbury and Clare College, Cambridge.

His public service included being chief industrial adviser to the Department of Economic Affairs and chairman of the British Institute of Management and the British Overseas Board of Trade. He was MEP for Cambridgeshire from 1979 to 1994 and is the author of many books which include The Christian in Industrial Society (1964), God’s Time, God’s Money (1987), his memoirs, At the Cutting Edge (1995), Jobs and Justice, Homes and Hope (1997), It Can be Done (2000) and The Creation of Wealth: Recovering a Christian Understanding of Money, Work, and Ethics (2002). He died in November 2014.

I interviewed him in June 1998.

As  an Ulsterman whose forbears landed in that part of Ireland in the early seventeenth century, you have known what it is to live among people who consider themselves to be the dispossessed natives, with you the interlopers. How far has this set of circumstances helped to form your character and shape your life, would you say? 

As a family we lived on both sides of the border. When I was fifteen we moved to Donegal where the Irish were in power, and we lived perfectly happily with them. My father knew the politicians from both sides but the Catherwoods, if anything, were against the Unionists because they nationalized the family business. We realized then what it was to be faced with a one-party state, there being no appeal against the Unionists, so I think we were rather sympathetic to the minority in Northern Ireland.

Ulstermen, and Unionists, are British, and you and yourself had an almost totally English education. Do you feel yourself to be Irish in any sense, or do you never describe yourself as an Irishman? 

I was brought up to dislike nationalism because it divided Ireland. I am a Unionist in the sense that I believe in a union of four different races in one country and all of those four races should be equally treated and equally respected and equally British if they want to be. The bane of the twentieth-century life has been ethnic nationalism. That’s certainly been so in Ireland, and it is now a real danger in England. It started with Mrs Thatcher and the extreme hostility she showed to our near neighbours on the Continent. I believe it does immense damage to them, to us, to the European enterprise, and to everything I hold dear.

You speak of attending Sunday services in local brethren assemblies, and you say what struck your mind most was the sincerity and passion of the speakers. Did you ever reflect in adulthood that sincerity and passion were perhaps not adequate measures of morality – indeed they could be used for evil ends? 

Oh yes, but we have the Bible, we have the great creeds, our Christianity is all clearly spelt out. If a particular sect goes in the wrong direction you very quickly become aware of the fact that it is wrong. You have a basic written faith on which you can fall back.

But don’t people interpret the written word in different ways? 

Of course they do. What happens when people go wrong is that they step out of the mainstream of interpretation over two thousand years. But there has been a fairly steadily agreed interpretation from the time of the apostles through the great Augustine, through Luther and Calvin, up to our present day.

You say in your autobiography: ‘If youthful indoctrination were the golden road to faith, then the twentieth-century churches would never have emptied as they did.’ This rather argues against the ‘accident of birth’ theory of religious adherence, but surely there is a sense in which we inherit our faith… 

No. The mainstream Christian doctrine is that you do not inherit your faith. The faith you have is a gift of God, and no parents can ever assume that their children are going to be Christians. What you have a duty to do as a parent is to teach your children what you see as the truth, to bring them up in the faith, but they may not accept it. So I stand by what I said.

Calvinism with its emphasis on hard work and the duty to make the most of God-given talent is the bedrock of your Christian faith. Surely you would concede that this was the culture into which you were born – in other words you didn’t just happen on these principles; you grew up with them, you imbibed them, and in this sense you didn’t consciously choose them… 

Faith means trusting that Christ died for your sins and that you are redeemed through the gift of faith. That is your relationship to God. The outworking of your faith is something which gets into a social pattern – in other words, it may well be that your children do not have a personal faith, but they can still inherit the idea of the social rights and wrongs that you teach them. They may not be Christians but they can go on doing things that Christians do, at least for a generation or so. What then happens is that it fades out, and that’s what’s happening here. This country was built up on a Christian conscience, the outworking of the Christian faith; it has now lost its basic Christian faith and therefore the culture and the social standards are coming apart.

Do you believe that had you been born into, say, a Muslim family, or even a Roman Catholic family, you would still have arrived at your present system of belief? 

Yes, because it’s a much too Anglo-Saxon or Eurocentric kind of view to think that only we in our part of the world can arrive at these kind of beliefs. For instance, at the moment, the Chinese church is the biggest in the world; it has at least fifty million adherents. China will be transformed by Christians working out their faith in the Chinese context, and it’s the same with many other countries where the Christian faith is growing. In Eastern Europe, for instance, Communism is gone and hardly anybody in Eastern Europe who is a Christian has been a Christian for more than five years. But they believe what I believe, and when you talk to them about working out their belief you discover that we work it out in the same way. God gave us talents – we have to use these talents. God made us to love our neighbours as ourselves – we’ve got to do that. The moral order that has helped this country so much will, I hope, help those countries too.

At the age of nine you were sent off to boarding school in England, a long way away from home, and although you mention briefly the feeling of separation from your family, you accepted stoically what other have described as traumatic. Is this reticence on your part, or an accurate account of the way it was? 

It’s an accurate account of the way it was. Children do accept things – this is part of the tragedy – and so you do things to them which are not right, but they still accept them. To be fair to my parents, they had not much experience. My father was sent away for his secondary education, and he just thought that education over the other side was best. He took the decision in ignorance, if you like. We didn’t send any of our children away because we believe the family is the basic unit of society and that it should be kept together. Children should come home every night and we shouldn’t farm them off for other people to look after.

At Shrewsbury you were in a very alien environment. Everything about it, from the fagging system to the fact that independence of thought and action were discouraged, went against your upbringing. Did you never openly rebel against those in authority? 

Well, it was wartime, and the authority of the school was reinforced by a nation at war, so it was not the kind of time when people were tempted to rebel. I was rebellious in the sense that I absolutely refused to accept their standards, and I didn’t measure up to the perfect model of a public schoolboy.

It was the son of a clergyman who tormented you for reading the Bible and for refusing to swear. You prayed for help and the fact that your prayers were answered immediately greatly strengthened your faith. In what ways were your prayers answered? 

This boy was trying to stir up other people against me, and he absolutely failed to do that. I prayed that he wouldn’t succeed, and my prayer was answered.

I’m interested in the business of prayer because it seems clear that many prayers remain unanswered, even for those in desperate trouble. How do you account for this? 

Well, God doesn’t promise to give you everything you ask for. Nowhere in the Christian faith are you promised an easy ride. If you read the epistles of Paul the Apostle, he promises only that if people do what is right, God will reward them.

But what is it exactly that we do when we pray? Can it really be that God can be prevailed upon to change his mind? 

What God does is to tell us to pray as a child would ask his father, but the father knows ahead of time what the child needs. So yes, God does want you to ask for something, but he does not change his mind, so to speak.

But how do you know all this? How do you know what God thinks? 

Because the Bible is full of prayers and responses, showing us through a dialogue with God what happens when the immediate prayer does not seem to be answered.  I empathize with David in those psalms and all the prophets in the Old Testament. They pray to God that he will deliver his people, but the answer comes back: ‘No, because the people are wicked, they have turned their back on me, I cannot deliver them.’ And then you find another passage in which the prophet recognizes that God’s holiness is more important than the comfort of the Jewish people who turned their backs on him. So the pattern of prayer is established through the Bible and you know your own prayer is valid because you are praying exactly the same way as David did or as Isaiah or Paul did. Paul prayed that God would remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, which God refused to do so that Paul might realize that he was dependent on God and not on his own strength. It’s all there in the Bible, even if people tend not to read it nowadays.

So you base everything on the Bible… 

Yes. Christ came and rose again from the dead, publicly acknowledged in front of hundreds of people, and so authenticated himself as the Son of God. What he says is valid. He then authorized the apostles to speak, and what they say is valid. The Bible is an authentication by Christ. I’m a Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ, and therefore I believe in his authentication. Furthermore, I am now seventy-three years old and I’ve been a practising Christian since the age of nine, and I don’t find anything written anywhere else that is as true to life as that which I find in the Bible.

But how do you know that the Bible is genuine, that what was written later on is what happened then? 

Because of all ancient manuscripts, the Bible is far and away the best authenticated. The Jews are notorious for having preserved their scriptures, generation after generation, so these scriptures are absolutely valid. Nobody would deny that, and the most ancient manuscripts of the New Testament are the most valid ancient manuscripts in history, and they go right back to the time when people were alive who could have denied them if they had been wrong. They got the circulation they did simply because the people who knew the apostles knew they were right.

You never succumbed to the public-school system, largely because of the friendship and influence of a man called Robert Laidlaw, an army scripture reader. Your discussions with him laid the foundations of your belief in upholding the highest standards of Christian ethics in business and other areas of human activity. Looking back, do you think your life would have turned out differently if he had not been your role model? 

Well, that’s a hypothetical question which is extremely difficult to answer. All I know is that he is the most vivid influence in my memory. He stayed behind in Britain when he could well have gone to the safety of New Zealand, he was a millionaire and yet he operated as an army chaplain, and he lived through the Blitz, and so on. So what boy could not admire him? He was understanding, funny and very wise, and I felt extremely fortunate to know him. I just feel the Good Lord sent him along…

I’m interested in how much of your life you think was predetermined by God. If Robert Laidlaw was given to you by God, did you think you had been singled out for a special purpose? 

Not exactly a special purpose, but I think God has a task for you to do and he sends along to you the people who are going to help you in the task he has in mind.

Are there not inherent dangers in thinking along these lines? Could it not turn out to be a terrible self-delusion with unhappy consequences? I’m thinking of gurus and self-appointed spiritual leaders, many of whom turn out to have feet of clay… 

Oh yes, but what you’re leaving out of account is that if you are a Christian you believe in the corpus of what is written in the Bible. If you believe what Robert Laidlaw believes you have a common position and that common position would avoid his exploiting you. I mean, he was a good Christian and an honourable man, and you accepted him because he put himself within the framework of the Christian discipline and wouldn’t move outside it. You were safe with him.

But how would you know that as a boy? There are some things you can only judge as an adult… 

I was sixteen and I had been brought up as a Christian. Robert Laidlaw was a chaplain, I had read my Bible, and I just knew I was on safe ground.

Robert Laidlaw explained to you why he found Darwinism incredible and you say in your book that you ‘had to agree with him’. Is this still the case? I mean, do you completely reject the theory of evolution and the descent of man? 

My view is that the theory of evolution is just that: a theory. I find it almost impossible to believe that the human eye, for instance, was not designed, that it just happened as an accident. It can focus and adjust to light, tears come out automatically, it self-cleans, it sees in colour – it seems to me that if anything was designed, the human eye was designed. Even Darwin accepted that the human eye was a big barrier to his theory.

Do you reject Darwinism out of hand? 

I read history at Cambridge under the Regius Professor Sir Herbert Butterfield who happened to have written A History of Science. Butterfield made the point, which I think is absolutely critical, that the scientific method was formed by people who were believers – the Puritans, the Huguenots, the Dutch Reformed, and so on. They believed in a creator but they also believed that he had given us a world in his image. It was unitary, that is to say the melting pot of steel would be the same wherever you found it; it was orderly, i.e. you would find an order in nature; it was rational, i.e. it had systems in it; it was stable because God promised that it would be stable; and, finally, it was benign, subject to the fact that the world was in rebellion and therefore it was no longer perfect. Those are the five foundations of the scientific method, and you cannot have a scientific method without them. None of those assumptions can be proved, but they’re all Christian assumptions. Now, it was Francis Bacon who urged that science should stick to what could be proved and should not enter into metaphysical theories about origins which could not be proved. So he detached practical science for the good of man’s estate from theoretical science, and it was the practical science that took off, but it only took off because it rested on those assumptions. If you cease to believe in those assumptions you will find that the scientific method crumbles, and indeed in our country at the present time it is crumbling. I mean, post-modernism which doesn’t believe that there is any firm yes, no, proved or not proved.

Do you believe in evolution for animals? 

You ask me if I believe. I’m perfectly prepared to accept anything that is scientifically proved before and after, but that’s got to be within the framework of what can be proved, and I think there are kinds of evolution that can be no more than theory and there are changes which occur through breeding, and so on. I believe that there is what I would call change and difference over the centuries within the framework of particular species, but I only believe that if it can be proved. I don’t believe in it as an article of faith.

For instance, there is a particular species of wasp which lays its eggs inside a caterpillar, so that when the eggs hatch they have the flesh of the caterpillar as ready food. The caterpillar is first of all paralysed and then kept alive so that the meat, so to speak, will be fresh. All of this is of course perfectly compatible with evolution, but how is it compatible with a loving God? 

If you go back to the first part of Genesis and you see that God created the world perfect, but then there was a rebellion and into that rebellion came death and suffering and everything else. From then on it was a suffering earth, but he didn’t create it in that way.

Do you see science and religion as irreconcilable? 

Not at all. My religious beliefs are prior to my belief in science, but because I am a Christian I believe in the scientific method. Were I not a Christian, then I would be taken in by post-modernism, which does not believe any longer in the scientific method. For instance, when you go through an airport waiting-room, the pictures on the wall are post-modern, they’re all chaotic because they represent the view that there is no rhyme or reason, there is no truth, there are no absolutes. But when you get onto the aircraft you are extremely glad that the aircraft is built on the scientific method, not on post-modernist principles. Unfortunately, our society today is dominated by post-modernist destruction which is taking apart the social order on which Christianity has had such a huge influence. The moral order behind it is being deconstructed, and we are therefore living in a chaotic society which doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.

You seem very critical of what you call ‘pietism’. I thought pietism was a term for exceptional devotion to religion…can you clear this up for me? 

There is a theological pietism which concentrates on the personal feelings of the individual Christian; it’s inward looking, and it doesn’t care for its neighbour as much as it should, and it doesn’t care for the objective doctrine as much as it should. Those who practise pietism go to great conventions which make them feel good. To me that is not Christianity. You have to teach what is the Christian faith, and pietism doesn’t.

You trained as an accountant and embarked on a spectacularly successful career in business management, eventually becoming managing director of British Aluminium, as well as holding high office elsewhere. How difficult was it to maintain Christian standards in such a worldly and materialistic environment. 

It depended on who your boss was. It was difficult with my first boss, and that was why in the end I left and took another job. My second boss, Edwin Plowden, was no problem at all. He was one of the most distinguished public servants in Britain, and his ethics, integrity and relationships with people were absolutely superb.

Were you ever tempted to lower your high ethical standards in business? 

No, because as you must know, business is very much about trust. I was brought up to believe that you do business with people you trust, and with people you don’t trust you don’t do business. And also, because we were looking after other people’s money, we had a fiduciary relationship which we had to keep to. Post-war standards in the City of London were extremely high, and I was very happy with that.

Can you be confident that you always preserved an ethical balance between the conflicting needs of workers on the one hand and management and shareholders on the other? 

Well, who could be absolutely sure of that? All you can say is I tried.

When Labour won the general election with a slender majority in 1964, you were invited by George Brown to become the government’s chief industrial adviser. Wasn’t that a very risky job to undertake for a man of your standing in the business world, especially as a paid-up member of the Conservative Party? 

I may have been a paid-up member of the Conservative Party, but I resigned from the party when I entered public service because I went in at a rank where you couldn’t have anything to do with politics, and I thought it was best not to belong to the party if I couldn’t do anything about it. Edwin Plowden said to me that there would be people in the City who would never trust me again because I had worked for the socialists, but I believed it was the right thing to do.

What did your Conservative friends think of it, and your decision to suspend your Tory Party membership? 

I was not an active member of the Tory Party…

But you were advising a Labour government… 

Well, nobody seemed to notice. I only took an active part in my local party, and that was over Suez, and so I really wasn’t known in the party except for that one occasion.

Were you for or against Suez? 

I thought it was a ridiculous idea. I found it extremely difficult to see how, if the Israelis and the Egyptians were both east of Suez Canal, it helped matters to send the army down the Suez Canal and separate them. The whole thing was so clearly phoney.

You thought highly of George Brown, who seems to be remembered mostly as a joke figure, a drunken embarrassment to his own party. Yet you say he simply had a very low alcohol tolerance…is this remark based in Christian charity rather than reality? 

No, it was a fact. He would get drunk on sherry – that was the problem. He was always friendly and we had very good relations. I respected his political clout and he respected my ability to carry business with me, so that was the deal.

It is noticeable that although you may criticize policies, you never speak ill in personal terms of anyone. Is this a deliberate decision prompted by Christianity? Have you privately felt dislike, perhaps even hatred, for people in the course of your life? 

Christianity is a faith which emphasizes love, and it tries to eradicate hate, irritation, and all of those kinds of things. If you’re a Christian for a long time you feel an affectionate relationship comes more naturally to you than irritation, and you try to see the best in people. And if you act with Christian love towards them you get far more out of them.

And yet you say you’re impatient by nature… 

Exactly, but one of the things that the Christian faith does is help you to overcome your natural tendencies. You have to work hard at it.

Is there any politician whatever his religion or lack of it, in whom you have recognized true goodness, a person of whom you might have thought, this is a better man than I am, to paraphrase Kipling? 

There are a great many very good politicians, yes. For example, Alec Douglas-Home was a very good man – he may have had his limitations, but as an honourable man he was first class. And I liked old Jim Callaghan too – he is a good man.

In view of the peace agreement, are you now optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland? 

Yes, I am. I have been in and out of this for thirty years and I now believe an enormous step forward has been taken. My own feeling is that once there is an assembly set up and once local politicians have got a stake in that assembly – I’m thinking particularly of the Unionist side – then it will begin to gain a momentum of its own. Once the cross-border bodies get it going it will be seen that there is not the slippery slope that the Unionists fear. The main problems at the moment have to do with how you get the IRA to give up their weapons without this being acknowledgement that they have been defeated. In their view only defeated armies give up their weapons, it’s an act of surrender, but we can’t go on having the perception that if they don’t get their way they can go back to the gun.

If for some reason in the future – demographic changes, for example – the six countries joined the twenty-six and Ireland became united, would that worry you? 

No, it wouldn’t worry me unduly, not if there were a majority in favour.

Many Unionists have resisted the very idea of a United Ireland for fear of being subjected to the same restrictions on their personal lives as those imposed by law in the South: no divorce, no artificial contraception and no abortion under any circumstances. Yet these are rules of which you might approve, are they not? 

The impression I get from the Irish Catholic hierarchy and from my colleagues in Ireland is that the church no longer has any clout in the South. The South of Ireland is becoming a very secular country, and the church has scarcely any power left.

Your uncle and namesake emigrated to America in defiance of his father’s wishes and died there without reconciliation. It was a blow from which your grandfather never recovered, but you suggest that his mistake was in not realizing that a child is as likely to react against his parents as to follow them, and that each must answer for himself. If your own children had rejected everything you stood for, including Christianity, could you have let them go without blaming yourself, taking comfort in ‘each must answer for himself’? 

Well, it’s the only comfort you have. When it happens to the children of our friends, that’s what we say to them. You do the best you can and that’s all you can do. You shouldn’t blame yourselves. With one of our children we certainly had a very sticky patch and all we could do was to go on loving and caring and being good parents. You can’t do more.

The Catherwoods, parents and children, seem to epitomize the doctrine of Calvin, that virtue should be practised for its own sake, without hope of reward or fear of punishment, and provided that is done, prosperity will follow. Do you agree with this observation? 

No, I don’t agree prosperity will follow. Our daughter and her husband are both teachers and prosperity certainly doesn’t follow in their case, and it is the same with our son, who is a lecturer and writer. It’s true that our older son is doing very well, at least so far.

Would you allow that many have led a virtuous hardworking life without reaping obvious rewards? 

Yes, of course, but it’s done for its own sake, it’s not done for rewards.

Modern capitalism is said to have arisen from the widespread influence of Calvinism, and it underpins the best of Conservative though, but we now have a Labour government which seems to have embraced much of its doctrine, a churchgoing Prime Minister and a Foreign Secretary who advocates an ethical foreign policy. Do you feel less pessimistic now about the state of the country? 

Let me correct one of your primary assumptions. Capitalism has been there since the beginning of time; what Calvinism did was to produce a scientific method which meant there was a colossal technological breakthrough, together with a doctrine of hard work and the use of the talents which produced professionalism. It is science and professionalism which together have created wealth, so I don’t say that Calvinism equals capitalism; it doesn’t. My definition of Christianity is love for our neighbour, but in British society there is no care for those who are below a certain line. Now that was not the way I was brought up, it was not the way the Labour governments used to be, it was not the way the Tories used to be, but since the 1980s that is the way it has been. Sadly, Blair has not done anything about that, so the rich still get richer and the poor still get poorer. I’m extremely disappointed in Blair.

How do you view personal standards of behaviour in political life – the so-called sleaze factor which haunted the last government? 

It is just one highly visible part of the deterioration of moral and social standards. The other thing that Calvinism contributed was honesty; banking and trade prospered because people who didn’t know each other could trust each other, and indeed democracy grew up in so far as it did in the nineteenth century partly on the basis of the feeling that all men were equal and partly on the basis of certain standards in public life. If you take away the moral underpinning from society, as we have done, you can’t expect that the police will not become corrupt, that politicians will not become corrupt. It is a natural result of saying that there are no absolute moral standards.

You see unemployment as a great evil, partly responsible for the moral decline of the nation…but can Tony Blair do very much to solve the problem? Governments don’t actually create jobs and there is not much point in training schemes if there is no job at the end. If you were asked to be Blair’s adviser what advice you give him? 

I actually wrote a letter to the Independent giving the Chancellor a bit of advice. British industry lives on its wits, and in a world that doesn’t owe us anything, we have to sell more than we buy. That’s the only way forward for this country. Services are important, but not as important as industry and they’re also more volatile, so you need to make absolutely certain that British industry expands at a sufficient rate to create the surplus that enables you to expand the public services pro rata. At the moment, it costs a British company fifty per cent more to put down new capital than it costs a continental company because our interest rates are that much higher. Our interest rates are higher because the government came in with a pledge that it would not raise taxation. If you can’t adjust the economy through taxation you have got to adjust the economy through interest rates. To say that you can’t have a penny or two adjustment to get interest rates down in order to make British industry competitive is absurd. We are in the single market and British industry is faced with competitors who for the next generation of every product can put down fifty per cent more capacity than we can. The government is entirely responsible for that, not to mention the resultant loss of jobs and loss of hope.

What would you say are the moral absolutes nowadays? 

We have the Ten Commandments, you know. They are the moral absolutes, and we don’t keep them.

Do you believe in capital punishment? 

I believe in capital punishment subject to the qualifications that a Christian puts on it, which is that you have to be absolutely satisfied on the evidence of at least two people.

Can you ever be? 

Well, that’s a difficult question…

Do you believe in hell, and if so, do you see it as the biblical place of fire, or simply as banishment from the presence of God? 

The latter, but having said that, we underestimate the awfulness of banishment from the person who is the source of all good.

Do you believe that anybody, however wicked, should be punished for all eternity? 

The Christian concept of heaven is the concept of being in a place of absolute good, with a good God who is honoured and respected and obeyed by everyone who is there. If you bring in a rebel, for however long, he is still a rebel. That introduces a flaw – which is how evil began in this world. There was a paradise, there was a rebel, and there was a flaw, and once you had that there was no longer the relationship with God. Heaven is a place where there is complete trust because there is complete obedience to God, and you cannot have heaven flawed. I don’t know what heaven is like and I don’t know what hell is like; all I know is that heaven is a place of total good and total obedience. 

Is there salvation for those who cannot accept the truth as you see it? 

There is salvation for everyone. What happens is that people either come to see the truth, or they don’t. But the reason that people do not become Christians is that they are not prepared to subject their right to decide what is right or wrong to the view of God who made them.

You say that Christians must have more than mere inner convictions: ‘We have to show that the God revealed by Jesus Christ was the one true sovereign God who created the universe and that that message was the only valid analysis of the human condition.’ I ask this with great respect, but how can you hope to show that? You may believe it and preach it, but how do you show it to a Darwinist, an atheist or even to a Buddhist, or a Hindu? 

I am in favour of freedom of religion, because in the free market of ideas Christianity is usually most successful. The Christian church in China now has between fifty and seventy million people who grew up during the Maoist terror. Eastern Europe suffered seventy years of anti-Christian propaganda, but everyone has now forgotten the Communists and the Christian church is rising again, and it’s exactly the same in Central Europe. The Christian church is the belief system most widely accepted in the world, and one cannot therefore say other than it is valid for every people, race and nation.

Would you say you were puritanical when it comes to sexual matters and religion? 

No, I’m a Christian, and I practise what the Christian faith says. The proper place for sex is within marriage.

But most people have sexual intercourse before marriage… 

Well, you’re asking me what I believe, not what happens with most people.

Do you believe that sex is also a gift from God? 

Sex is a gift from God but the family is also a gift of God, and sex is meant for the family, not outside the family. If you went round the inner cities of our country at the moment and you saw the estates where most of the children are brought up with no father, you would conclude that the family where a man was committed to bringing up his children was a good thing, and you would not think that promiscuous sex was helpful socially. We are breeding a generation of unloved and unwanted children who are the loose cannons of our society. It is truly appalling.

Would you agree that the language of faith is very imprecise, that it’s almost impossible for one man to know what another man means by God or salvation or divine mercy? 

That’s what churches are for, to explain to us what these things are. It’s not that there is a mystery about them, but that there is a theological system to explain everything to people. But once you become a Christian and you practise it, then it’s like driving a car. At first you think, how can anyone understand how to make all these gears and pedals work, but once you’re in the driving seat you’ve committed yourself to it and you understand what responses you get. You know you’re in a workable system and you know how it works.

You say that eternal salvation matters more than anything in this life…is that not an almost impossible message to get across to people today, particularly to the young, who have grown up with very different values in a rather fragmented society? 

The average age in our church is about thirty. I think we have about a hundred and fifty students, all highly intelligent, all very young, and the message certainly gets across to them. The fact that this is not recognized by the rest of society doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The church is there, it is extremely active, it appeals to the young. Society has this image of Anglican churches being inhabited by three old ladies, but that is not the case. Far more people are interested in the Christian faith than are interested in politics, for example.

Yet statistically there is a decline in people going to church… 

Yes, and that decline happens because in a great many churches the liberals went along with the humanists. The liberals took over and since they didn’t believe in any absolutes they began teaching people that you don’t have to believe anything, so they didn’t go to church any more. Liberal churches have gone into perpendicular decline, but the vast increase in the evangelical churches where people still hold to the orthodox faith had made up for that decline.

Do you believe that the churches should be moving with the times, so to speak, trying to adapt to modern society, or are you in favour of the church sticking to the old truths which are immutable and not to be diluted to suit modern times? 

There is such moral and social and economic chaos in our cities today that you cannot put your trust in the deconstructionist society that we have now. We are told we cannot believe in any absolutes any more, and so all the bonds that keep a society together are dissolved. Our society is in decline and we cannot have any faith in modern Britain.

Obviously you believe in an afterlife, but do you fear death itself? 

To the Christian death is particularly awesome, because you are not just snuffed out – death is not the end. It is the time when you finally account for all you have done and it is a very awesome thing to come to your judge. Therefore it’s not so much that you fear death, but that you don’t lose the sense of awe about death.