Monthly Archives: June 2015

Thought for the Day

What a grim Sunday it had been.

The savagery of the day before, that took place in France, in Tunisia, and even in a mosque in Kuwait, was a shock of the kind that we refuse to harbour.

Sunday turned out to be a day of reflection when the enormity of the three separate heinous onslaughts began to sink in.

The perpetrators of such vile acts of barbaric proportions cannot be considered in any different light than pure evil contaminated by an ideology of hate that should have no place in any earthly environment.

To gun down innocent people on holiday, worshippers in a mosque, and the head of an enterprise for no apparent objective except to cause maximum casualties and inflict pain and terror to other humans, is the workings of a deranged mind that thrives on malediction and depravity.

Where is the Almighty on such occasions? Is it it much or sacrilege to expect the God that we worship to strike down these evil-doers in whatever way He elects, or is His intervention not part of the code that governs our terrestrial behaviour until the day of judgement?

These are issues which remain unresolved. Until, of course, the next journey we are destined to undertake when the gates of heaven are within our reach and the mystery of it all unfolds itself.

Meantime, we shall never know.

Can This Be the Answer?

Is Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Prime Minister of Israel, softening up his political stance vis-á-vis the Palestinians, or is it wishful thinking on my part?

Historically, people of his ilk are the ones likely to change tack eventually when they realise that peace brings untold benefits to their nation and war is no longer a viable option. To win an election is one thing, but to implement rabid rhetoric is another.

The Israelis who, at one time, had the backing of the Western world are now feeling the brunt of opposition to their occupation of the West Bank and their treatment of the Palestinians, who are equally tired of a conflict that cannot be resolved except by peaceful means. The gun, so to speak, has had its day for the combatants in this tragedy – and has by implication now lost its effectiveness.

The news that markets in Hebron are about to reopen after thirteen years seems a step forward to normalisation. When the second Palestinian uprising against Israel broke out in 2002, the Israeli military closed five hundred shops in the city, as they flooded the area with troops and tried to control the rioting. Last week, the military permitted seventy stores on Sahla Street to reopen to the astonishment of shopkeepers who thought the day would never come.

Hebron is the starkest example of Israel’s forty-eight-year occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. About seven hundred Israeli settlers live there among two hundred thousand Palestinians, guarded by a thousand Israeli soldiers. A fifth of Hebron, including the old city where the shops are based, is under full Israeli occupation. Omar Abu Aisheh, who ran a grocery shop, had long ago sold off his stock and given up on doing business there again. He now hopes to open the doors shortly and restock.

The announcement is one of several steps the Israeli Army has taken to ease tensions in the West Bank before the holy month of Ramadan. Men over forty and women of any age are being allowed to attend Friday prayers in Jerusalem without a permit during the holy month. Some residents were also given permission to fly abroad, via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. All of this is a far cry from last year, when the southern West Bank was largely locked down.

‘This used to be the heart of Hebron,’ Mr Abu Aisheh said. ‘Hundreds of people lost their livelihood when it closed.’

If this latest easing of restrictions heralds the beginning of a new era of reconciliation then perhaps we can hope for a resumption of the peace talks once the present impasse is overcome.

I still dream of the day when the Holy Land becomes the focus of eternal peace, where pilgrims of any denomination can visit in tranquillity, fraternity and tolerance.

James Lees-Milne

James Lees-Milne was a conservationist and architectural historian, having written extensively on the baroque, the Tudor renaissance, Inigo Jones and the city of Rome.

He was born in 1908 and educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. From 1933-66 he worked for the National Trust and from 1951-66 he was their adviser on historic buildings. He was also the founding secretary of the National Trust’s Country Houses Scheme.

He wrote a biography of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, The Bachelor Duke (1991), and his two-volume biography of Harold Nicolson won the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982. His four volumes of diaries placed him among the foremost diarists of the century.

I interviewed him in 1996, a year before he died.

You seem to have a dislike of being labelled – whether it be ‘doyen of conservationists’ or ‘biographer’ or ‘architectural historian’. Would you have any objection to being described as a man of parts? 

I imagine a man of parts is someone who is very versatile and good at lots of things. But I’m not good at anything, not even one particular thing.

Your diaries are littered with famous names from the past – Mitford, Pope-Hennessy, Sackville-West, John Betjeman, and so on. Do people nowadays seem very dull by comparison? 

Alas, I belong to the past. I wish I could claim to know interesting young people. I do know a few but they can’t be bothered with somebody like me. It’s not that I think young people dull at all but they’re rather different. I’ve got nothing against them, and they are very nice to me and very tolerant, much nicer than my generation were to old people.

You survived an extraordinary childhood, and like most children you seemed to accept your circumstances. Did you sometimes long for normality? 

I didn’t think there was anything abnormal about my upbringing, and I don’t think so now. My parents weren’t cruel to me at all; indeed they were very nice to me. My father was rather distant, that’s all, but in those days children were kept in the background. I only saw them at 5 o’clock. I was made to change into a tidy pair of shorts, clean shirt, and then I was pushed by my nurse into the drawing room, where I had to make myself agreeable for half an hour. It was very boring for my parents, and it wasn’t much fun for me.

Although you write entertainingly of your childhood, it seems to have been a rather unhappy time, characterized by fear. You seem to have spent more time with the servants than with your parents – in fact it comes over as a rather loveless environment. Would you agree with that? 

No, not wholly, because my mother loved me very much and she was very amusing and unconventional. As I got older and she got older I suppose in a beastly way I became aware of her limitations, and we drifted apart rather. But I always remained very fond of her.

Saying goodbye to your mother when you left for Eton you describe as ‘heartrending’…can you recall that feeling? 

Oh yes, but then you see, all boys of my generation wept for days beforehand because school was so horrible. It wasn’t so much that home was so nice, it was because school was so beastly that we wept.

You say that Eton fostered in you intellectual and aristocratic tastes, despite your circumstances which you describe as low brow and lower upper class. Have you felt that as a tension, a dichotomy throughout your life? 

My background was a philistine one, that’s to say my father only thought of hunting and shooting and racing and gambling. He wasn’t a rich man, just a sort of ordinary squire, but he lived in a small manor house, so I suppose we were what one calls gentry, but you’ve no idea how limited they were in those days. They despised learning, they never went to art exhibitions, they didn’t go to concerts, their friends were all exactly the same, and I never felt easy with them when I grew up. I did want to get away from them, that’s quite true.

In your autobiography you say, ‘I’m actually conscious of, and amused by, class distinctions. I love them and hope they endure forever.’ What lay behind that remark? 

I think class distinctions are fascinating. All the great novels are about class…just think of the Russian classics of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There’s a sort of leadenness about life when there are no class distinctions.

Does the political idea of a classless society fill you with horror? 

It fills me with gloom. It’s not that I like people because they belong to the aristocracy, but on the whole there’s a sort of illumination, a casualness about the aristocratic view of life which I find rather appealing. They don’t take themselves very seriously – think of Nancy Mitford, for whom everything was a joke up to a point – and they’re sophisticated and amusing. Then of course they have lovely country houses to stay in, and the English country house is something very special.

You say you were a terrible disappointment to your father. Was that difficult to deal with? 

Yes it was, because he made me feel that I was a total failure because I didn’t have a good seat on a horse. And I didn’t care for shooting. It bored me, and anyway I didn’t like killing things. So he thought I was cissy. He didn’t bother about whether I was doing well in my schoolwork, but he would have liked me to have been sporting and thereby accepted by his friends as a good old chip off the block. As it was, I think they thought very little of me.

After Eton you stayed briefly at the home of Lord Redesdale. How did your family compare with the Mitfords in terms of eccentricity? 

My parents weren’t eccentric at all, so there was no comparison to be made. Tom, my friend, was my link with the Mitfords, and it was through him that I went to stay there. I found that Diana, the one who was nearest to me in age after Tom, was mad about poetry and literature, and that was marvellous to me. I realized that there was a world which was completely different from boring Worcestershire, the manor house with its horses and guns, and I thought, this is too wonderful.

Tom Mitford remained your friend until he was killed in the war. You rather gloss over his death in your book…was it shattering to you? 

I was very upset, and so were all his friends. We all were devoted to Tom I saw him the evening before he left England. He didn’t want to fight against the Germans, so he went to Burma and was killed at once by the Japanese. I remember being told of his death by Nancy who rang me up and said in a sort of offhand way, ‘Oh, by the way, you know Tomford’s dead.’ They all had nicknames for each other, and she used to call him Tomford. I thought that was too much of a stiff upper lip, but that was the way they were brought up, not to show their feelings.

You were rebuked by James Pope-Hennessy for what he calls your ‘collapse from pacifism’, which paved the way to your joining the Irish Guards in 1940. Can you tell me how you came to adopt pacifism, and what made you relinquish it? 

In between the wars I had convinced myself that the First War was totally unnecessary and was the most appalling calamity, and that no war was ever justified. I don’t think that in the late 1930s I was so aware of the iniquities of Hitler as I was when the war was over, and that applied to a lot of English people. But one of my great friends, Robert Byron, a traveller and writer, was passionately anti-Hitler. I was feeling very ambivalent when the war came, and he convinced me that I should join up and be prepared to fight. So I did.

There were a number of notable pacifists at the time, including Frances and Ralph Partridge. Were you influenced by them at all? 

I didn’t know Frances Partridge until after the war. She remains an absolute confirmed pacifist, but the awful thing I learned is that it’s no good being a pacifist unless everyone else is. You’ve got to stand up to evil. And how can you do it except by fighting?

Oxford seems to have been a profound disappointment to you…why was that? 

I had the idea that it was going to be a quiet secluded beautiful city, which of course it is, and that there I would lead a cloistered existence, and study, and that dons would take an interest in me, because I was young and earnest. But they didn’t because I wasn’t clever enough, unlike all my Eton friends. They also all seemed to have money and I had none at all. It was very difficult for me, because they used to entertain and give luncheon parties, and there was lots of drink and they were raffish and exciting and thrilling. I couldn’t compete; so I minded.

But did you sow your wild oats in Oxford? 

Not very much. I led a quiet life really. I was always very romantic about women and frightened of them when I was young. The idea of casually sleeping with a woman before I was about twenty-five would never have entered my head. Women were people to be courted, and they were romantic. Diana Mitford, for example, was always up there on a celestial cloud, somebody to be worshipped. I suppose I felt sexy, but that was something quite different, and you went to a brothel for that, though I never did. I was terrified of that too. But the idea of meeting a girl at a party and then going to bed with her, it never occurred to me…

Your father had a profound contempt for intellectuals. Did you allow that to influence you at all? 

It made me rather secretive in the sense that I would read books under the bedclothes with a torch so that my father wouldn’t see the electric light thorough the crack between the door and the floorboards. And I had to hide my books because when I went back to school my father would throw them away. He thought reading was something rather decadent.

You fell under the spell of Keats, Shelly and Byron, and later Gerard Manley Hopkins. Was Hopkins instrumental in your conversion to Roman Catholicism? 

I think he may have been, yes. I thought I was going to write a life of Hopkins. In fact whenever Peter Quennell gave me a book he would say, ‘To the future biographer of Father Gerard.’ Of course I never got down to it; I wasn’t capable of it.

When you were a young man, your faith was uncomplicated, and it took you years to work out that it was because you never associated morals with God. Was it shattering to discover that the two might be related? 

Yes, it was rather, because I found going to confession very distasteful. When I no longer belonged to the Church of Rome, I went back to my old church. I’ve always been rather religiously minded. As a child I was mad about God, and still am, and I love talking about Him, but people get embarrassed by God, don’t they? I mean, most of my friends are agnostics, but I’m certainly not. I am a fervent believer, but of course I don’t have to worry about morals now very much, because I have no temptations to steal or go to bed with anybody.

You appear to have lost your faith for a time when, as you put it, ‘morals began to rear their beastly hydra heads’. Was that a difficult time? 

It was an embarrassing time. I thought, I can’t go back to the same priest, or any priest, and say, ‘I’ve done it again, father’ – I just can’t. It’s totally off-putting, and I think it’s all nonsense too.

I’m wondering what religion could have meant to you, how it could have been experienced by you as something distinct from moral behaviour… 

I think it’s all to do with the afterlife and the purpose of life. I would have found it very difficult to get to the age of eighty-six if I hadn’t believed in God.

In Another Self you describe the period when you were in love with three people at the same time saying: ‘I reached heights of ecstasy wherein I came closer to God than ever before or since.’ That’s quite a significant statement…can you enlarge on it? 

It was true. I was in love with two people whom I knew, and one whom I’d never seen, but whom I adored. This was during the war and we simply spoke on the telephone. It is quite easy to be in love with more than one person, very easy indeed. It’s only really embarrassing when they meet.

Sex and God do seem to have been recurrent themes with you. In 1942 you recorded in your diary: ‘The lusts of the flesh, instead of alienating me from God, seem to draw me closer to Him in a perverse way.’ Was that perhaps just wishful thinking? 

No, because somehow love or lust did bring me closer to God. I had lustful feelings, but in fact the objects of my desire were nearly always people that I was in love with. I think one can identify the loved one with God, as perhaps nuns and monks do. The sex I had then was not squalid; it seemed to me a fulfilment of myself, almost a sort of union with God. But I think my views of God perhaps are unorthodox. I think of God as the spirit of light and of goodness and understanding…perhaps one shouldn’t really.

After your conversion to Rome you returned to the Church of England. Was your experience of Roman Catholicism a brief flirtation, or was it more like a painful love affair? 

I treated it in a rather offhand way. Had I been born a Roman Catholic I should still have been one, I think, but what I liked about being a Roman Catholic was the universality of it, and what always gave me satisfaction was realizing that the mass was being said all the way round the clock – every moment of the day it was being said somewhere, the same liturgy; but when the Vatican Council changed that, I turned against it. I thought it a tragedy.

As a young man you say that the idea of sex without love shocked you. Did it continue to shock you throughout your life? 

Oh yes, I was shocked by myself very much when I had sex without love. I thought it was squalid, and of course now that I’m the age I am, sex means nothing to me at all; it’s either a joke or it’s really rather disgusting , besides being a frightful bore.

There is a very poignant account of a brief but intense friendship with a young man – Theodore, I think – which ends in tears. It also seemed to strain the limit of heterosexuality…was that a worry for you? 

No, not a bit, because I’ve never discriminated between hetro- and homosexuality really. I think you can be in love with both, you know…I’ve always found that.

Your first employment was a private secretary to Lord Lloyd from 1931 to 1935. Did that suit you or did you have the feeling that you were in the wrong job? 

I felt that I was not in the right job, that I had my way to make in the world, that it was only an interim job, and he realized that too. But looking back on it, it was a very good experience for me because he was a task master and I learned how to work hard.

You then held the post of adviser to the National Trust, which seemed tailor-made for you. In terms of satisfaction and job fulfilment, how would you compare that part of your life with your literary activities? 

Although I had secret literary ambitions I never thought I was going to write books until the war. So during the 1930s there was no conflict at all. I dedicated myself to the National Trust work and didn’t even think of writing books.

Do you see yourself as having being engaged in a war with the philistines, preserving wonderful buildings from acts of vandalism, and so on…? 

Oh yes, very much so. I was one of the founder members of the Georgian Group in the 1930s, and it was a fight to get the public to recognize that classical buildings in this country were of any importance at all. The Ministry of Works, the government department which had care of the ancient monuments, said that architecture in England ceased in 1714, the year that Queen Anne died, and therefore no Georgian building was even worth looking at.

You are a distinguished biographer, most notably of Harold Nicolson and the 6th Duke of Devonshire. On the face of it biography would seem to be an art form distinct from novel writing or autobiography, but do you perhaps think that the distinction is sometimes blurred, that biography is often closer to fiction than we imagine? 

I think you have to control yourself. You mustn’t fictionalize or allow your imagine to take flight when you’re dealing with another man’s life. You have to be careful not to let your prejudices run away with you, and you probably can’t write a very good biography if you dislike your subject.

You have sometimes said that your prefer writing about rogues. What is it that attracts you to rogues? 

It is easier to write about rogues than about virtuous men. To write the life of a saint would be frightfully difficult unless it was a funny saint. One of the reasons why newspapers are so wicked and have such an appalling effect on people’s lives is because they deal with bad news and bad people. Good people’s doings are very boring.

Your novel Heretics in Love deals with the themes of Roman Catholicism and incest. Was it meant primarily as an entertainment, or were you intending it as a serious expose of moral and religious problems? 

I was trying to see whether one could make a tale of that sort seem plausible. It is about twins of the opposite sex who had grown up in the country as Catholics and had not known or consorted much with the outside world. I wanted to test whether it was possible for two people brought up in those circumstances to fall in love; and whether it was pardonable.

In your third novel, The Fool of Love, the squire Joshua says, ‘So long as one is madly in love one is living in a fool’s paradise.’ Was that remark based on your own experience perhaps? 

Yes. Because I think when people are passionately in love they are mad and very unreliable. I think that if one knew that the prime minister was carrying on a passionate affair with someone, one would feel extremely nervous in a crisis.

You were in your forties when you married…were there times before that when you contemplated marriage? 

The people I would like to have married were either already married or turned me down, so then I didn’t bother very much for a while. And then suddenly I met Alvilde and I fell in love with her. That was difficult because I was still a Catholic and she had been married before and had a child. She had had a very unsatisfactory married life, in fact she often used to say she couldn’t think how her daughter was ever born at all. Her husband was in love with somebody else, so she had a rotten life. We tried very hard to get an annulment for her, but it turned out to be quite impossible. If it had happened today we probably wouldn’t have cared tuppence whether we were married, but it did seem to matter then, and we were very conventional.

You never had children of your own, and relations with your stepdaughter seem to have been strained. Did you, or do you dislike children? 

I don’t care for children very much. When they’re responsive and affectionate I think they’re sweet and nice, but on the whole I find them awfully boring until they’ve become adults.

One review wrote of your latest volume of diaries: ‘Some of Lees-Milne’s opinions are now so wildly outdated and unfashionable that one has to remind oneself that these diaries were written before anyone had thought of political correctness.’ Do you have a view on political correctness? 

I think it is deceitful. I’m often accused of being a snob, but really I’m not. What I am is an unashamed elitist; it’s not reprehensible to want to know people who are cleverer than oneself or more amusing.

After hearing a communist express the view that the needs of poor people should take precedence over those of the upper class, you decided that left-wingers were evil and wrote in your diary, ‘I have no sympathy for them at all. Let them burn.’ Is that not an indefensible remark, then as now? 

Oh the left-wingers, well, I don’t fancy them. I’m very impatient with them.

Is it difficult not to regard some passages in your diaries as impossibly right wing and racist. For example, a television programmes about Bangladeshis led you to write: ‘Such people ought not to exist…these ghastly people are a sort of standing or seething pollution of the western world’s perimeter, of the civilization we have known. I can’t stand the Orientals, their deceit and abominable cruelty.’ Would you still stand by such comments today? 

Very often I would. There are altogether too many of us, and the danger in what is called the third world is absolutely terrifying. Until they can be stopped breeding I really do think the future is very bleak indeed. But I agree, it is a very offensive remark.

In your autobiography you wrote, ‘I prefer to be in the running without ever winning than never to run at all.’ Is this modesty, or lack of ambition? 

I don’t think I am ambitious but I do like successful and interesting people, and I’m grateful that they’ve wanted to see me because I get more out of their company than they do from me probably. My life has not been full of achievements. I have yet to write a book that I think is much good. I’m not at all satisfied with myself.

Does the Frequency of Sex Make us Happier?

A recent study found that, contrary to expectations, the frequency of sex does not boost happiness or improve the level of desire. Psychologists found that it could instead lead to a fall in enjoyment.

I don’t believe a word of it. The more sex you have the more addicted to it you become. Less frequency normally leads to a subjugation of desire and eventually the death-knell of it.

However, it also depends on the quality of sex one is having and with whom. For sex is an art form that needs renovating and experimentation to maintain the libido in excellent condition. It has to be kept in a tip-top state for fear it wanes for lack of the necessary exercise.

Psychologists are by nature less practical than we are led to believe. For theory is to them the Bible of their profession, whereas in real life practicality is sometimes far removed from its theoretical parallel.

Sex is one of the most complex divine merriments endowed by the Almighty. We must therefore treat it with the care and attention it deserves. It is basically the jewel of our existence, provided we unlock its nuggets of those mysterious pleasures which have no equal.

So, good luck on your journey of discovery and enjoy its bountiful rewards. It is your last chance before the call of heaven sweeps it all away in favour of eternal choirs.

The Lynch Mob Rears its Ugly Head

Who would have believed that an advanced society in Great Britain, once the bastion of free speech and tolerance, would behave so erratically to bow to feminist pressures and sack Sir Tim Hunt, the scientist, who got involved in a sexism row after his comments on ‘the trouble with girls’ in laboratories.

It’s a shameful act from academics who should know better than to be seen to back people of low-grade who want to turn this country into an undemocratic institution, where free speech is censored and condemned in order to stifle any comments that do not meet with their misguided policy of political correctness.

That concept, which caused dissension when it was first introduced, is still a potent force that refuses to go away. Gone are the days when freedom of expression was the byword and society enjoyed the merriment of an unadulterated humour that is almost extinct today due to the restrictions attached to some words which the lynch mob consider offensive.

Is it therefore surprising when eight Nobel Prize-winners have come to the defence of Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winner himself, for being treated so shabbily? The distinguished group has warned of a chilly effect on leading academics’ freedom to speak their mind after Sir Tim was forced to resign his honorary professorship at University College, London, in the face of widespread pressure from social media users.

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010, said that Sir Tim had been ‘crucified’ by ideological fanatics and castigated UCL for ‘ousting’ him from his post. Sir Andre said: ‘The saddest part is probably the reaction by UCL’s top brass who forced him to resign; so much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be the guardians of academic freedom.’

He warned that it would ‘take years for the reputation of Sir Tim and UCL to recover’.

Other notable Nobel Prize-winners rallied to defend Sir Tim and express their deep shock at his despicable maltreatment.

My own concern is that hypocrisy by the very few is casting a dark shadow on every vestige of our society and, if left unbridled, will damage our own reputation in the world and make a mockery of our so-called democracy. Free speech is an essential part of democracy and the lack of it is a threat that will eventually demolish every tenet of our society’s structure and institutions.

Above all, let us fight to remain free and damn political correctness for its narrow and unpalatable horizons.

(A Miserable) Thought for the Day

As my nose is large enough to detect a newcomer to the modelling world, how about Kimberley Garner’s bid to become America’s golden girl?

The Made in Chelsea star, twenty-five, is launching a swimwear range and modelling it herself in the Californian desert.

She also met up with her friend Kelly Brook, thirty-five, who is enjoying life across the pond in US sitcom One Big Happy.

The gorgeous pair posed together in matching floral headbands for a snap posted to Instagram to boost their league of fans. Not bad to ‘Garner’ publicity for a good cause.

Sexy swimwear is now the gateway to enthral and seduce healthy young men and rekindle the happy memories of older men.

Sex has become a commodity without which the meaning of life simply ceases to exist.

As old age dawns on us, we are left to contemplate in dreamlike fashion what was once a gift from the heavens that still remains with us but now as a solace for our lost libido.

Leaving the EU a Disaster

Now that a Conservative government is in place for the next five years and the disastrous threat of a left-wing Labour administration has evaporated, hopefully never to surface again, we are still faced with major problems mostly of the new government’s making.

The referendum about Europe could prove the undoing of the Conservative Party and the country as a whole.

Britain may lose its AAA credit rating because of market fears over the outcome of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a leading credit agency announced recently.

Standard and Poor’s, the only one of three major agencies still to give Britain the top rating, said the vote represented a ‘risk to growth prospects for the UK’s financial services and export sectors, as well as the wider economy’.

The agency said that it had given a ‘negative outlook’, meaning at least a one in three chance of a downgrade in the next two years.

The decision came as part of a broad and unexpectedly bleak assessment of the UK economy by S & P which suggested that the deficit reduction targets were unrealistic and the current account of deficit was an ongoing ‘vulnerability’.

It added that leaving the EU might mean that Britain could not finance its large deficit and high short-term debt, and warned that even the campaign itself would harm the UK economy.

‘In our opinion, the process of holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is evidence of increasing risks to the effectiveness, stability and predictability of UK policy-making. This could negatively affect sustainable public finances, balanced economic growth and the response to economic or political shocks,’ the agency said.

The Conservative Party is notorious for its division on Europe. Many of its members are still under the impression that Britain is the world power that it used to be and could go it alone without the need for EU membership.

It is a fallacy that will cost the country dear. Effectively, it is tantamount to a hara-kiri that Britain will live to regret if the wound is not fatal. Europe can survive without Britain if the chips are down. Even the USA will desert us once our influence recedes.

I hope good sense will prevail in the end. Otherwise, doom is clearly on the horizon.

Sir Denis Foreman

Denis Foreman was born in Scotland in 1917 and educated at Loretto and Pembroke College, Cambridge.

During the war he served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, being wounded at Cassino in 1944. His war experiences are recounted in To Reason Why, which appeared in 1991. After the war he began producing films for the Central Office of Information and in 1948 he became a director of the National Film Institute. He was the inspiration behind the establishment of the National Film Theatre before joining Granada Television in 1964.

His book, Persona Granada (1977), charts the history of Granada Television of which he was chairman from 1974-87. His interest in music culminated in his directorship of the Royal Opera House and in his books, Mozart’s Piano Concertos and The Good Opera Guide.

I interviewed him in 1997; he died in February 2013.

In your reminiscences you describe how two people inhabited the one person. One was perplexed and often unhappy, the other was extrovert and charming. Do these two people still co-exist? 

Over the years they’ve become familiar with each other and although they haven’t moulded into one person, they are much less dissimilar than they used to be in the early days.

You grew up in a prosperous Scottish family with all the trappings of the upper class – nannies, under-nurses, afternoon tea, servant halls, and so on, yet you never really felt comfortable… 

No, I was not happy with the upstairs life. The top part of the house in which I grew up was the nursery, and there were eight children, six brothers and sisters and two adopted, and they made up one community, one culture. On the ground floors were the grown ups, people who were remote and a bit pompous, people we didn’t really know very well, and below that were the servants. These three cultures co-existed, but my favourite culture was the servants; I preferred them to the noisy nursery and the posh middle floor.

Did that remain the case as you grew older? 

I’ve always had a strong prejudice against well-bred, aristocratic people. It takes a lot for me to get over the fact that a man’s been to Eton. I really have to struggle to like a man who has been to Eton. That has stayed with me all my life, and the upper-class accent is something that sets my teeth on edge, and when I hear the royals speak I have to close my ears.

Do you think you were born with an innate sense of independence, as it were? The structures of your upbringing were so firm it’s difficult to see how you could have questioned them and rejected them so completely without a strong freedom of spirit… 

It was more that I refused to accept any convention, any received wisdom, or indeed any view if I had not convinced myself that it was sane and sensible. This came about by reading. My father, who had been a clerk in holy orders, had a huge library of theology and amongst this was an encyclopaedia of ethics. I found in my reading that most of the Christian ethics were actually remnants of tribal beliefs which had been going on for thousands and thousands of years. If the tribal beliefs were no longer thought to be valid, I couldn’t see why the hell Christianity should still be thought to be valid, and I was very firm on this from an early age, from about twelve or thirteen. I found that the Christian religion was unacceptable.

Did this apply to all religions? 

It was particularly the self-confident religions, including the whole of Islam, which I found unacceptable. And because I grew up with Christianity, and people were always praying or talking about God or giving you a lecture, Christianity was on the doorstep all the time, and that made it worse. Hinduism and Buddhism seemed more tolerant, more agreeable, and I loved the Greek myths. I thought they had the right way to treat gods – that was the proper place for them.

Looking back, do you feel grateful that you had something to rebel against? 

I suppose it served a purpose. It made me self-reliant and you also have to have a great deal of stamina and courage, if you’re going to rebel and stick to it, because you make yourself exceedingly unpopular. Nobody likes a rebel who contradicts their deepest and most dearly held beliefs. I mean, I loved my mother and father, I loved my brothers and sisters, and to offend them so deeply was not easy, but it seemed to me I had to do it.

Were you the only rebellious member of the family? 

I was the first, but one by one they dropped off the perch. By the time they were mature people there was perhaps only one out of the eight who still believed in God. It wasn’t particularly my influence – they were sensible people and they came to their own conclusions.

In many ways you rebelled against the things you also loved best. Was it painful to you that you couldn’t enjoy the circumstances of your childhood – the countryside, the privileges – without the evocation of class which they entailed? 

Actually I had a great capacity for enjoyment, especially with the servants and my brothers and sisters. My deep disquiet with the upper class didn’t in any way inhibit me from having a happy childhood. I just cut myself off from the nonsense that was going on upstairs.

So did you in fact enjoy the privileges of your upbringing?

I took them for granted; all children do. I knew there were poor people, but I absolutely never questioned the fact that we had a lot of cars and ponies and servants. That was just the life we led. 

It struck me when reading your memoirs that many people would have given anything to have the advantages of your childhood, not just in material terms but in the sense of it not being banal. At least your parents discussed the nature of sin, the problem of evil…in other words, it can’t have been dull. Have you thought of it in that way? 

Yes. One of the great advantages of being brought up in our household was the constant debate on every topic – music, poetry, literature. My grandmother in particular was a great taster of new novels. She read all the brilliant new novels that came out, although every now and then she would reject one because the characters were too disreputable. Music was always a subject which was very close to everyone’s interest, and of course religion was always being debated. I didn’t care for that so much, but the debate itself was good fun. All my life I have enjoyed debate, even though I’m very often arguing a case I don’t really feel very strongly.

Your feeling of being different from those in the outside world was developed fairly early on. Has this sense of being different from others continued throughout your life? 

There are of course different ways of being different. The fact that I am a Scotsman born and bred has given me a particular view of the English whom I still see as a foreign race. I have worked with Jews a lot in my life, and I see them as a race for whom I have more affection and with whom I have more affinity than the English. I have never been able to tolerate the top class English very easily. During my upbringing I formed a very close association with working people, and I still feel that they are the basic human ingredient in life, those people who worked on the farm in Dumfriesshire. Subconsciously, I think I measure important people, rich people, clever people, against that inbred feeling that the farm workers really were the guys I liked.

You say you sometimes felt ashamed for not liking your father better, especially when everyone else thought him such a decent chap. Why did he disappoint you so much? 

That is a very fundamental question about fathers and sons. He was a decent chap, but he was also unconscious of the fact that he was treating his wife as if she were a second-class person. He behaved towards his family as if he were the major general and they were all private soldiers, and he treated the outside world very often as would a public relations man. He was extremely good at ingratiating himself with certain kinds of visitors, churchmen, for example, and within his own orbit he was very well thought of. In my home town even today, they speak of my father with great affection. But there was a very firm code of conduct which you could not break.

What sort of father would you have chosen for yourself? 

I think I would have chosen a more open-minded and better educated father. I would have liked a father who was prepared to discuss and debate on equal terms with me, not simply hand down received wisdom and tell me it was true. There was no interplay, only commands from on high. One of the awful things, of course, is sending children to boarding school, a terrible thing to do. It emphasises the fact that father and mother are home, but you have to leave and get educated. I don’t like that.

You described attendance at the United Free Church as the greatest penance of the week. Why do you think you reacted so much against it when for most children it was a normal part of growing up in Scotland? 

Two reasons. One was that I’m very susceptible to boredom; I can’t stand being bored, and I bore very easily. I regard it as the greatest penance in life. I’ve done a great deal to enquire into what makes a bore, because I find it a very interesting and underdeveloped study. The other reason was that what the minister said in his sermon was such rubbish, and he said it with such unction and with such certainty that I found it deeply offensive. But I couldn’t tell him. I just had to sit there and take it. 

Your atheism caused quite a stir in the family. Have you ever had doubts about your atheism, if I can put it that way? 

Never, no. It’s the foundation of my belief and thought. One of the great regrets for mankind is the delusion of religion; it’s done so much harm, it’s caused so many wars, so much hardship, so much intolerance. Even today one of the greatest threats is Islam. Many of the religions are running out of steam, which is good, and of course even though people get married in church and bury their fathers in the church graveyard, their actual faith is very weak. They pretend, but there is a lot of hypocrisy.

Do you think as you grow older you might change your mind about religion? 

No, I don’t. I’m completely comfortable with the thought of dying, although one always hopes for a fairly peaceful and orderly exit. I mean, I have seen rabbits die, I have seen horses die, and I’ve seen men die; I think they cease to exist, and that’s it. It is a very deep human instinct to try and pretend there’s an after-life, because it’s consoling and people don’t like to think they’re going to be rubbed out. But they will; they will be rubbed out completely.

Was your lack of belief just another kind of challenge to your parents or was it a separate thing? 

I think it was self-generated. I used to count all these messiahs who preceded Jesus Christ – there were seventeen of them – and I used to look at the incidence of virgin birth in other religions, and also crucifixion – the rarest of the lot – but nevertheless it was there. All the great phenomena of the Christian religion which are treated with such enormous respect are duplicated in other religions. People want it that way, therefore they believe in it. I’ve never been able to understand, for example, why people think God is good, but people want God to be good and so they believe in the goodness of God.

The effect of your lack of faith was quite traumatic for your parents, especially your mother. Did you come to regret that you hadn’t pretended to have faith, for her sake? 

At the time I was deeply upset, but I felt it was inevitable. Sooner or later you have to come clean on issues that you really don’t feel it’s right to conceal, and I don’t think I regretted telling my parents what I did. Perhaps the way I did it was not very elegant; it certainly took them a long time to come back to having an affection for me. It really wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and was wounded that I rediscovered a warmth between my parents and myself. It took ten years.

Is there any way that the Presbyterian ethic had endured, albeit against your will, or have you managed comprehensively to reject it? 

Many of the Presbyterian habits have afflicted or assisted me through life. For example, it took me a long time to throw the sexual taboos off. I felt guilty when indulging in any form of sex, and that was due to an upbringing which was extremely prudish, indeed to a degree you simply wouldn’t believe. On the positive side, the Presbyterian upbringing gave me a certain degree of stamina in thought. In the Scots Kirk you have to argue a thing through, even though it’s a ridiculous argument. That probably did assist me in later life to stick to a point of argument. The Presbyterian work ethic has bugged me all my life too; I find it very difficult not to work.

You say that by the age of nine you had reacted against the smugness of pure faith. Are you still reacting against that today? 

Well, of course that smug attitude has diminished. It was prevalent in the Church of England, and also in the Church of Scotland – the idea that we ministers are superior people, we are God’s chosen people, we are here to tell you how to behave. Today the Church of England is grovelling around to curry favour with pop stars, so it has rather lost its smugness, not to mention its dignity. In my view, it is a little despicable the way they try to snatch whatever public fashion will make them seem up to date.

Do you think that smugness can ever attach itself to agnosticism or atheism? 

Yes, it certainly can. You can be very self-righteous as an atheist or an agnostic. I would say that of all the Christian religions, Catholicism is obviously the most intellectually respectable, because a very sound thesis has been built and, provided you have the belief, it can be defended at all points since they’ve spent centuries working it out. But atheists haven’t spent centuries working things out; indeed every atheist has his own argument and his own beliefs. What I tried to do for several years was to find fellow spirits who could be put together a decent funeral service for non-believers, but it couldn’t be done, because there is no basis, there’s no common ethic, no common ground. It would be possible to write a funeral service for myself, but no one else is going to use it, or only very few.

You said you got on well with the farm workers – you like their directness, their strength, their endurance…did you really want to be one of them? 

I suppose the short answer is yes, I did. They had a canniness, a sense of humour, a sense of perspective; they were the sort of people I wanted to be. Then I went away to school, which was a very disagreeable wrench, we sold this particular estate, but it was my ambition to buy it back, and until I was wounded I was determined to do so and to reorganize the farm and make it so much better than my father had it. I only gave up the idea because I thought – perhaps wrongly – that I ought to be able to do physically what the other men would be doing. Little did I think that farmers would come to sit in front of a computer for three weeks and then go and shoot partridges in Spain, which is what they do nowadays.

You knew you were different from the upper-class boys but you were also different from the workers – your accent marked you out if nothing else. Where did you feel you belonged exactly? 

I was bilingual in so far as I could speak Lallans Scots as well as any of the farm workers – it was a completely different language. When I was with the farm workers I could speak well enough not to be identified as an upper-class person, though sometimes it went wrong. Once when I was with them cutting down a tree by the side of the drive, a car drew up and a chap jumped out and asked me if I could tell him where my father was. I replied in English: ‘He’s gone to Edinburgh to see an osteopath,’ and the farm workers all collapsed with laughter. They started imitating me and thought it the funniest thing. I was so ashamed, but I knew I couldn’t have spoken Scots to this guy because he had a bowler hat on.

You talk about the cynicism you developed perhaps as a defence against your upbringing, the idea that you would believe the worst of everyone, not the best. Did you manage to rid yourself of cynicism in later life? 

In certain areas I have never been cynical – in the arts, for example. There I’ve been a total enthusiast, not one of those picky people who’ve tried to find something wrong all the time. I think my cynicism diminished with adolescence, and as I grew older I began to be an enthusiast about many things, a cynic about some, but only those concerned with class, religion and literature. I’ve always been leery of pompous people in literature. My cynicism was tempered finally by the army in which I was a wholehearted soldier. I though, rightly or wrongly, that the war was of critical importance to us, that we really were fighting for our lives and our freedom. That was my motivation, not any affection for military affairs, but once I was in the army I realized there was so much wrong with it that I had to buckle down and try to change it.

In your family there were various euphemisms for bodily functions, and mention of sex was absolutely taboo. Do you think that influenced your attitude later on? What I mean is, if there had been greater openness and honesty, would you have become a different person? 

I know that I would have become a different person. I was inhibited until I was a mature man by this terrible legacy of prudery. I can’t explain why, but they managed to induce shame in anything to do with physical sex, and that association was so powerful and so deeply felt that I found I couldn’t shake it off for a very long time, not until I was thirty or forty. With religion one could shake it off quite easily, because it was cerebral, but the idea of sex was absolutely taboo.

Are you saying that until the age of thirty or so you were unable to have a sexual relationship? 

 Well, one had experiments but one was deeply ashamed of them, which sounds ridiculous now and almost unbelievable, but it’s true. One always started to feel uncomfortable, morally uncomfortable. I resented that. I didn’t see why I should have the hang-up when a lot of people around me didn’t.

You describe the process of divesting yourself of a myth and superstition as a very lonely business. Did you ever lose heart? 

No, it wasn’t like that. It was a long business and very difficult and complex, but my interest and enthusiasm grew with knowledge. I never felt for one moment downhearted or that it was an impossible task. Sometimes I realized I’d been following the wrong line and that could be frustrating, but the actual fascination of the study itself didn’t impose any kind of feeling of irritation. In fact it was wonderful. This sounds a silly thing, but I felt so proud actually to have done this, with all the people around me not doing it; I had confidence that this was right and never had a shadow of a doubt.

You joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In your book about the war you say that an infantry officer had only two options in the Second World War – death or being wounded. Did you know that at the outset? 

Not so, precisely, but it was a pretty good guess. When you were actually in action, you saw your cadre of officers turn over. It just stared you in the face.

You were wounded at Cassino and lost a leg, something you make light of in your book. Did you actually consider yourself lucky to come out of it alive? 

Yes, I did. I got off lightly. In a way there wasn’t a worry about death at the time; in fact one felt almost that death was relief. Blindness was the worst, two limbs pretty bad, one limb, damn lucky.

You had some very complicated feelings about the business of war. Did you ever consider not fighting for your country, or did you see yourself as part of the effort to defeat evil, or what? 

Absolutely unequivocally I saw a threat to our way of life. I feared the Nazi regime, and it was real fear. When you saw the power of the Wehrmacht, their organisation, their backup, their efficiency, and compared it to our amateur bunch who were still fighting the 1914-18 war, as it were, it was truly terrifying. I wanted to get in there to do everything I could to reform and rebel against the High Command and try and get some sense into infantry training. That was my main mission.

Did you find it difficult after the war to adapt to civilian life? 

No, not a bit. I was sad not to be a farmer, but that didn’t last because I enjoyed other things so much. I enjoy nearly everything, and I sometimes wonder whether it’s a terrible fault. I had a wonderful time after the war.

What attitude did you adopt to disability? 

Well, it sounds silly, but it didn’t bother me. It was awkward to get mobile enough to do what I wanted to do, but I instantly realized that certain things were out and I just shut them out of my mind. I was an athlete at Cambridge before the war and that had to go. Also I could no longer fish in waders or do highland dancing. But you immediately make your equation, decide what you can and can’t do.

The gramophone was very influential in your life and encouraged you to study music seriously. Was there something more to music than enjoyment? Did it seem to contain a truth that was lacking in everything else? 

Music was always music. I’ve always regarded music as its own thing, in its own compartment, and I’ve never drawn any deductions from music to life. I mean, I think of music as an absolute. I know that operas have librettos and stories, but they are of secondary importance. I know that Kurt Weill was a communist, but that is quite separate. Music is enormously important in my life. I can’t tell anyone how important it is; it’s something I can’t put into words.

Why did you pick Mozart to write on? What is it about Mozart that fascinates you? 

Music is very hard to talk about, but I regard Mozart as simply the best. In other composers I find great qualities and also considerable flaws, but Mozart’s top class works are for me pretty well perfection, as near perfection as you can get in this world. Mozart was so quick to learn, not like Beethoven, who was slow to learn and very often clumsy. Beethoven stumbled around and is sometimes a bit of a bore, but powerful, immensely powerful.

Are you keen on Wagner? 

I have an enormous respect and liking for Wagner, but the minus side of Wagner is so enormous that to do an equation is almost impossible. His political and sexual kinkiness are definitely on the debit side. The basis of his political theory in the Ring is simply ghastly, as is the cheap stuff in Tannhäuser. The only decent plots are the Dutchman and Meistersinger which bring out a Wagner acceptable in words and music, but when you get to the Ring, what he is saying in words is pretty horrible and also extremely boring. The plus is the most amazing score ever produced, the greatest feat of imagination in the nineteenth century. It’s got that power to move which very few possess. There was a performance of Götterdämmerung at the Proms in the 1960s and when they finished, the whole of the Albert Hall applauded for twenty minutes. They just didn’t stop, so eventually the orchestra left, the conductor left, but the audience went outside and applauded for half an hour in the rain. That’s Wagner’s power.

You have been a director and deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Are you dismayed by the chaotic state of affairs at the moment? 

Yes, I am. I think that the actual financial management is very poor. I don’t understand how they could have got into this particularly bad mess. When I was there we had our problems, and you could see ahead the possibility of having fewer assets than outgoings, but we took adequate action and we never had a cash crisis. If you can’t pay the wages, you’re in bad nick.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Royal Opera House? 

Absolutely. Good institutions always survive. We are the most musical country in Europe bar none, and we must have a major opera house. There are enough people who have the influence, the power and the desire to see a great opera house here, and they will see that it happens.

Your latest book, Person Granada, charts the history of Granada Television of which you were a founding member. Would you say that Granada has remained true to its founding principles? 

I don’t think anything remains true to its founding principles, including the Catholic Church. All institutions change with time and the idea that there are principles which are immutable is one of those follies of mankind. Once Mrs Thatcher came on the scene, a lot of principles went out of the window. Until her philosophy encroached upon it, television as set up in a way that it was your duty to provide public service programmes, and if you didn’t do it you had your licence taken away. When that disappears it becomes a free for all and everything becomes dictated by market forces. I have no regrets as far as Granada goes; it’s part of the general sea of change that’s taken place over the whole community.

But do you think these changes are for the good? 

I don’t really believe in better or worse when it comes to changes. I believe that changes are inexorable and you adjust to them. They are absolutely inevitable…the tide comes in and then it goes out.

Well, do you think Mrs Thatcher was right to do what she did? 

It was very much against what I would have liked, but it was a tide in human affairs, and she caught that tide. Whether it’s Napoleon, or the Pope, what they’re doing is riding a movement of what people are thinking, how humanity is changing. Thatcher caught that, and she jumped in the saddle just at the moment when the horse was going to run. I’d like to put a lot down to her, but she was only a pawn really in a much greater movement which I think was inevitable. How many of us now believe in the principles of the Labour government of 1945? I remember passionately believing in them, but pretty well every one of those principles has disappeared. Better or worse, I don’t know…principles are as mutable as opinions.

Granada had a reputation for first-class drama programmes right from the start. Why do you think that talented writers and programme makers were particularly drawn to Granada? 

The people who ran the company understood writers, we were writers ourselves, or people who were musical, and artists responded to that, they know when they’re getting a sympathetic response. They know when the front office are bastards and when they’re friends, and we were friends. Simple as that.

Granada made its mark with outside broadcasts. You say at one point in the book that these outside broadcasts would now seem to us grotesquely primitive, and even then they were exceedingly boring. Would you say that today a great deal of news coverage, in its endless repetition and search for new angles, is also very boring, perhaps dangerously so, in the sense of numbing the mind? 

Yes, I would. I’m very critical of the present standard of news, which is very low and very poor. There are elements in news that should not be there. Very often the news is simply a list of murders, accidents and rarely, very rarely is there any point beyond a general portfolio of crime and disaster. Crime is popular, but what the hell does it matter if someone is murdered, except to the police and the people directly involved? We make the mistake of regarding rape and murder as news, whereas in fact they are a form of rather salacious entertainment. There’s also an awful lot of people’s insides, and new genes that have been discovered. I wouldn’t say it was unhealthy, but it is again not news. The presentation is also very tedious, two newscasters who have been doing it for fifteen years. Sky News is better than BBC and ITN because they have fresh people, but otherwise it is terribly boring at the moment. They handle big stories fairly well, but all in the same sort of sermonizing voice, which is quite wrong now.

Isn’t the emphasis sometimes wrong, the coverage disproportionate? 

Oh, crazy. But when the country has a fit of hysteria as it did over Diana, or minor hysteria as it had over Louise Woodward, it’s very difficult for the news editor to know how far to run with that hysteria. If he doesn’t run, he’s going to lose ratings, so there’s always a professional equation. The equation of favour is that you don’t get ratings by talking about people’s stomachs the whole time, or by reading a police gazette. News should be fun when it’s not serious. The present attitude by those rather boring people who run the news is to give a sort of mock Elgarian trumpet horn arrangement to introduce it. Who the hell wants a fanfare before the news?

Do people have an endless capacity for being bored? And should television recognize that and cater for it? 

Boredom is really a fascinating topic. You can suck people into an exceedingly repetitious line of thought which deprives them of the capacity to reject it; that’s what boredom is, the couch potato variety. People are deprived of the power to say, oh Christ, let’s switch this off. They have somehow been brainwashed and conditioned into keeping that glazed look when something is happening on the screen which they don’t really care about at all. That sort of subconscious magnetic attraction doesn’t get a lot of ratings, but it will give you a fundament of ratings. People will sit watching without really knowing what the hell they’re watching.

Broadcasting, like publishing, used to be headed by giants, larger than life people who were supremely individual and often autocratic. For example, as you say in your book, Sidney Bernstein was extremely litigious, and given to rages, so that people were afraid to go against him. Is there room for a Sidney Bernstein or a Lew Grade in today’s very different industry? 

No, it’s changed. Now you have enormous giants out of sight. Rupert Murdoch or Conrad Black – they’re not hands-on giants, they are giants who work in the background secretly and manipulate their staff and pull the strings. Another reason that broadcasting and publishing are now businesses, and they are run by people who are more accountants than impresarios. I was brought up in the impresario age, but the age of the impresario is over. What you get now is a committee looking at a proposal and a businessman saying, ‘It’s only going to deliver 4 per cent of profit.’ Once again, I don’t challenge change; it happens.

Your relationship with Sidney Bernstein did not always run smoothly. You had different origins and backgrounds – Sidney being the son of a Jewish immigrant tailor. Did that ever get in the way? 

Absolutely not. I liked that Jewish, continental culture to which he belonged. Lew Grande had it too. I found them wonderfully quick people to work for, down to earth and very often funny. The Jewish sense of humour is wonderful. The differences between Sidney and me were those of two stags on the same hill; I was doing something that he had done before, and he did not really like to see the younger generation taking over. I think it was as simple as that; I felt that at the time, and I still feel that. If Sidney and I had not been very close friends, as we were before I started working, and as we were at the end. But we had our problems in the middle, because he resented what I did very much, and I resented his interference. He was a perfect pain in the arse.

Your comments about John Birt have received quite a bit of attention. After giving an account of how he squandered money on programmes which were never made, you rather damn him with faint praise…you seem very unimpressed by him. 

Yes, I’m not impressed by John Birt. I think he is a nice man, and he has a certain ability, but both he and his employers have enormously overestimated that ability. The BBC is not a happy place, and it’s no good defending the license fee, and having all these wonderful new schemes if the place is unhappy and if the basis for making programmes is not a good one. The whole purpose of administration is to give the programme people a chance and to hell with everything else. They have to have enough money, they have to have a firm base, but this idea of accountability right, left and centre in everything is hopeless. Hugh Greene was a great director general and he kept that sort of thing down by force of personality and strength of character. If a minister or an MP criticized Hugh he would put him down by what he said and who he was; he didn’t need to keep working away, making friends with people in high places and producing new schemes and so on.

If I can quote from your book: ‘Even then John Birt had such a passionate belief in his own intellectual process that he could persuade others he was as clever as he believed himself to be, which was a matter open to some doubt.’ Do you think Birt is dangerous as well as deluded? 

Not dangerous. I think he’s doing absolutely his best by his own lights, but his beliefs are misguided. In an institution like the BBC people are more important than anything else. People should look after other people, and those at the top will pick others as good as themselves so that the pyramid goes down, and at the bottom of the pyramid you have the producers working in a helpful climate. John Birt does not rate that as highly as I would. He wants the system to be right, to be efficient, he will spend hours, days, years trying to make it so, but he will not build the pyramid of people, he will concentrate only on the structures and the forms.

If, as you suggest, he has no talent for the management of people, how does it happen that such a man can be in charge of a creative organization? 

It was a matter of fashion in a way. The BBC had a number of really outstanding personalities as its director general, and then there was a feeling, quite justified, that the spending got out of hand and there was money being wasted on a rather disgraceful scale. It needed tightening up and it needed a director general who would look at the economics. They got one. Meanwhile the poor buggers who struggle away making programmes are desperately unhappy, no question of that.

Of course John Birt is operating within a very different ethos from the one which characterized your days at Granada…this is an era of top-heavy management and accountants – the same has happened in publishing. Is John Birt just a product of the prevailing spirit? 

He has adopted the fashion of the outside world, but the terrible thing is that there is no need to do so. You have to make a commercial profit everywhere else, but in the BBC you do not need to do so. As long as you organize your resources, your income and expenditure, you do not have to produce 25 per cent profit on capital or whatever the parameters are in business today; all you have to do is to get the housekeeping organized in such a way as to permit your programmes makers to do their very best. My belief always was that if you called in a consultant it meant failure; you had failed to solve the problem which you should have been able to work out for yourself. The consultant will in the end give you something you usually don’t want.

Which things, if any, would you say are better on television now? 

Variety. Things are being channelled by subject – there are four sports channels, for example, and I think that’s good. At almost any time of the day or night you can see first class sport. I like the canalization of broadcasting. I think the BBC and ITV were very slow to see it come, and they still have hardly caught up with it.

If you were running television now, what would be your guiding principle? 

Always to create circumstances to allow talented people to make the best possible programmes – it’s as simple as that. To let talent do what it wants with the minimum of interference.

I was rather surprised to discover that you are an admirer of Rupert Murdoch. What is the basis of this admiration? 

Admirer is the wrong word. What I happen to be is a defender of Rupert Murdoch against people who totally malign him. Rupert’s responsibility for publishing a lot of the rubbish is criminal, but on the other hand, he’s absolutely straight, so when I hear him roundly condemned I always say this. He is reliable, he is honourable, and until recently I would have said he kept his contracts. The other thing is Wapping, which was a very brave thing to do, whether you approved or not. Even though I don’t like his publishing policy, I acknowledge that Rupert has done good things.

Isn’t it dangerous when too much power rests with one individual? 

Yes. And so far every country who has tried to limit it has failed. To me it’s a comment on the fallibility of politicians, who are blackmailed into permitting this to happen for fear their own popularity will be impaired.

A recurring theme in your book is your passion for asking awkward questions. Has that got you into a lot of trouble in your life? 

It’s got me into trouble with governments and sometimes with my superiors, but on the whole I would say it has been a profitable exercise. Asking awkward questions is an extremely important part of negotiating your way through life. If you put diplomatic demeanour ahead of getting results you’re a goner. I would do anything not to be bullied by the politician or the editor who usually says something is against the interests of the nation, or if you publish that story the country is going to lose millions of pounds. It’s invariably absolute rubbish. The last resort is the official secrets act; people who want to stop a programme always cite the official secrets act. I don’t believe there is any security matter  today that merits censorship. Northern Ireland, terrorism and the drugs scene require a degree of secrecy, but the idea of national security is total rubbish. There is nothing to be secure about – the Russians always knew more than we did anyway.

Would you say you are a contented man? 

Contented with my own lot, but I thrive on discontent. To be critical and constantly searching for improvements is necessary for a fulfilling life. There are angry old men, just as there are angry young men. While I’m not so very angry, I’m still alert to a feeling of things being abused or going wrong. I’m constantly feeling I want to pick up my pen, and though I don’t usually do it, there is a mental letter going on most days. I don’t feel in the least serene.

Is Music the New Elixir of the Mind?

It has long been known to give comfort to an exhausted spirit when all other measures fail. The body seems to react to music in a way identified recently by various studies confirming its magical powers to soothe the nervous system and nourish the mind at the same time.

Regardless of its artistic merits, if you are seeking music to boost your brain-power then Mozart is your man and might prove to many that he is a much better choice than Beethoven.

According to a study from Sapienza University in Rome, some composers are superior to others in stimulating intelligence.

People who listen to Mozart’s music showed an increase in brainwave activity linked to memory, understanding and problem-solving. However, no such increases were found after the group listened to Beethoven.

The study, which was published in Consciousness and Cognition, suggested that the rationale and highly-organised arrangement of a Mozart sonata may ‘echo the organisation of the cerebral cortex’.

‘One of the distinctive features of Mozart’s music is the frequent repetition of the melodic line; this determines the virtual lack of surprise elements that may distract the listener’s attention from rational listening, where each element of harmonic and melodic tension finds a resolution that confirms listeners’ expectation,’ they wrote.

A previous study, published in 1993, found that listening to the ‘Allegro con spirito’ from the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major by Mozart could improve spacial reasoning skills for a short time.

I grew up listening to Mozart’s music, as my father, brought up in a German orphanage in Jerusalem, was a Mozart addict. I was later to find Mozart’s music a tonic for the mind and melodiously unsurpassable. So I’m not in the least surprised that his magic is being hailed for its hidden benefits of cognition.

Perhaps Mozart’s preference for vulgar sexual practices bred the elegance that his music celebrates. Most great composers were, so to speak, afflicted in this regard but nevertheless produced masterpieces.

Have we, by any chance, missed the point of what makes a genius?

An Orange a Day…

I’m not really surprised to read that orange juice may hold the secret to a healthy brainApparently it could improve brain function in elderly people, new research has suggested.

A small study in which thirty-seven adults, with an average age of sixty-seven, consumed 500 ml of orange juice daily for eight weeks, found they had an eight per cent overall improvement in cognitive function compared with a group who consumed a controlled drink.

At the beginning and end of the eight weeks their memory reaction time and verbal fluency were measured by carrying out eight tests. One of the tests required learning a list of words to be recalled immediately, and again, after a thirty-minute delay. Remembering one more word from a shopping list of fifteen items equated to an eight per cent improvement. This could translate into substantial improvements over a life-span.

While the researchers are not recommending that people drink 500 ml of orange juice every day, due to its high sugar content, they say their findings show that the juice’s constituents could play an important role in providing brain-boosting nutrients as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Co-author Dr Daniel Lamport of the University of Reading’s School of Psychology and Clinical Languages Sciences said orange juice was a major source of a group of naturally occurring plant photo-chemicals known as flavonoids, which studies have shown improve both learning and memory.

‘Small, easily administered changes to the daily diet, such as eating more flavonoid-rich fruit and vegetables have the potential to substantially benefit brain health,’ he said. ‘We know that people find it difficult to sustain big changes to their diets, but simple alterations are made easier to maintain permanently. More research on the positive effects of flavonoids on cognition is still needed. However, this is an important discovery which strengthens the growing body of evidence that flavonoid-rich foodstuffs could play a big role in tackling cognition decline in old age.’

As far as I’m concerned, having reached the ripe age of eighty-four, although my memory for names over the years has gradually given me a most unwelcome embarrassment, I’m still fully alert and my cognition is as well as it could be.

I attribute this to a well-disciplined diet: having an orange every morning as part of a breakfast which mainly consists of a good helping of cottage cheese with a generous dollop of extra virgin olive oil, two pieces of wholemeal bread and a cup of filtered coffee known as the Vienna Mix.

My lunch is mostly fish but on occasion I have a steak tartare and a few chips that help keep my energy at the gruelling level which I feel my work demands.

In the evening, I content myself with a very light meal served at 6.30, and retire to bed not later than 9.

My mornings start at 5 am when I reckon my faculties are at their best and more in tune with my way of life.

So there we are. Longevity can be achieved by having a structured and delicate balance in all that we do, especially in our consumption of food. We must also remember that moderation in all things is the passport to a fulfilled and happy tenure on this earth.