Nicholas Mosley

Nicholas Mosley was born in 1923, the elder son of Sir Oswald Mosley.

He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and from 1942-6 he served as captain in the Rifle Brigade.

He is the author of books on politics and religion and has also written a biography of his father, Beyond the Pale. His many novels include Hopeful Monsters, which won the Whitbread Prize in 1990. Films have been made of two of his novels, Accident and Impossible Object. His autobiography, Efforts at Truth, was published in 1994.

I interviewed him in 1997.

Your autobiography Efforts at Truth might be described as an attempt to make sense of life. Do you think you have succeeded? 

I’ve succeeded in trying to understand something in myself that I hadn’t understood before. One doesn’t finally quite make sense of life, because there is something essentially ungraspable, but what one can do is get near enough so that somehow the understanding is there, even though you don’t actually pin it down.

Your autobiography does not take the usual form, a chronological account of birth, schooling, significant milestones, and so on. It is more a critique of your fiction interwoven with your life. Do you think your life can be explained in terms of your books, and vice versa? 

It was a way of trying to deal with the problem. A lot of autobiographies are by their very nature self-pleading and self-justifying, or they’re trying to attack someone. I thought that if I tried to talk about my life in terms of my books, there might be a chance of getting some sort of objectivity. I could look at what I was writing and I could look back on what I was doing at the time, on how I was living. By getting some sort of interplay between the two I would both be trying to understand what I was doing in the fiction and also looking at my own life.

Your autobiography offers a view of the human condition based on free will within the context of a Christian faith. How extensive is this free will? Are we totally free? 

No. We are free more than anything to look at what our situation is, which is itself a very large freedom. I don’t think one has freedom to alter the world or alter the circumstances very much, but if one uses one’s freedom to look at oneself and look at one’s circumstances, I think this does have an effect, even on the circumstances. Things are altered by looking honestly. That’s the real freedom one has: to look, to watch and to listen.

If we accept the concept of free will it suggests that life is full of choices, and in that sense we are free to make those choices, however difficult they may be. But where do chance and casualty come in? What about the chance of going overboard or falling under the proverbial bus? Or what about when a difficult choice is forced on you? Isn’t free will a hopelessly limited concept in this complex world? 

It is limited. I don’t think one can run the world or even run one’s own life by an effort of will, but I think that if one gets into the habit of looking at oneself and trying not to pull the wool over one’s eyes or other people’s eyes, then life does happen in a slightly different way. One is then a little less liable to fall down the coalhole.

Sons of famous fathers traditionally have a difficult time. When it is notoriety bordering on infamy it must be doubly difficult. Has that been a major defining element in your life? 

I find it hard to answer that, because I’m in no position to know what I would have been like if I hadn’t been the son of my father. But yes, obviously it has played a very large part in my life. It had certain disadvantages which one needn’t spell out, but there were also advantages in that my father was an extraordinarily lively man of ideas, and the sort of feeling I got as a young man was that one could question anything. That was a great help to me. Being my father’s son also got me out of what might be called the usual sort of upper-class Etonian rut. My father was an outsider, so although one had one foot inside the world, one also had a foot outside. It was a challenge whenever one became gloomy about being called Mosley, but it never really entered my head to think this was a great misfortune.

I suppose one of the problems is that even when – as in your case – you seem to have come to terms with the past, made peace with your father, laid the ghost, it will still be thought by others that your father is the cross you bear. Has that perhaps been an irritation? 

I don’t naturally think in those terms. Everyone is born with certain advantages and certain disadvantages, and to start wondering if life would have been easier if one had been a different person is not a good idea.

In The Rules of the Game you recall how you heard from your nanny about your mother’s death when you were at school, aged nine. You suggested the reason why you remember so little about your mother was perhaps because it was not bearable to remember. Has there been a tendency to romanticize your mother because of this? 

Maybe. After my mother died people used to speak of her in very glowing terms, very romantic terms. She was obviously a very warm person, a very much loved person, and that had a clear effect on me. But the really striking thing about my memories of my mother is how few memories I have. That is because I was brought up in the age of nannies.

Have you continued to miss your mother throughout your life? 

Not consciously, absolutely not consciously at all, but what goes on in the unconscious, who knows…It has sometimes been pointed out to me that I almost never have written about a mother-son relationship and that is because I have no experience of it, I suppose.

Your mother died at the time when it was fashionable to exclude children from death and funerals and even the opportunity to say goodbye. How conscious were you of that denial, of being shut out? 

I remember clearly being brought home from my prep school by my nanny. I was nine and it was my first term. A few days later, on the day of the funeral, my sister and I were told that we were not going because it was thought it would upset us. I do remember thinking that it was stupid, just one of the things that the grown-up world had got wrong. We used to live in this lovely house by a winding river in Buckinghamshire, and I can remember sitting on the banks of the river while I knew my mother’s funeral was going on, and saying out loud, ‘I’m sorry I’m not there.’ I certainly thought it was a mistake, but in those days, sixty years ago, that was the attitude.

It was not long before rumours abounded that your mother had died of a broken heart on account of her husband’s infidelities…that must surely have made things even harder to bear? 

I always thought that was rubbish. Even at the age of ten I can well remember thinking that it simply didn’t make sense, because my mother had actually died of peritonitis after an appendix operation. People used to murmur that it was because she’d lost the will to live, but there was no evidence of that, and I always thought badly of the people who said that. One thing I’m sure of is that my father was certainly heart-broken when my mother died. Perhaps he was being unfaithful, but he was the sort of man who could both be genuinely heart-broken when she died and be carrying on with another woman. He was a complex man of enormous energy.

You began to stammer at the age of seven and in Rules of the Game you go through the well-known psychological explanations for stammering. But the theory you seem to favour is that it is in some ways a protest against what you call ‘the too easy flow of words’. Isn’t that too simplistic as an idea – that we stammer because otherwise we might be drowned in a sea of words? 

Yes, it is a bit simplistic. It’s an explanation I gave to myself later in life, but I think it is superficial. The more interesting psychological explanation, which I was offered years later by a psychiatrist, is that stammering is a way of defending oneself from other people’s aggression and also, perhaps even more importantly, a way of protecting oneself against one’s own aggression towards others. I’d never thought of that myself, but it did strike a chord, and it is a nice psychoanalytical idea.

Would you be happily cured of your stammer, or has it perhaps become too much a part of your make-up for you to let it go easily? 

I don’t know. It has certainly become very much part of me. When I was at school it was a great pain, a great anxiety, and when I was in the army it was extremely embarrassing. But in later life on the whole I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve been able to lead my own life. I haven’t wanted to put myself into situations where it mattered, so it isn’t something which worries me very much. Every now and then I’m in a situation when I would like to be able to make a public speech without stammering, and then I find it an awful bore, but I usually just accept it.

Your marriage to Rosemary was an attempt to balance faithful commitment to each other with individual freedom – an attempt which did not succeed. Did you come to think that because you did not achieve it, that it was in itself unachievable? 

I suppose it is really unachievable. Rosemary and I for quite a number of years made a very good shot at it. We caused each other a certain amount of pain – I certainly caused her pain – but for a time we did in a way achieve it, and we were very loving and fond of each other. We had a hard time at the end of our marriage, but after we’d separated and divorced, and I had married again, I was on very good terms with Rosemary. I used to go and stay with her up in the Isle of Man where she had gone to live, and we actually got on very well, rather like an old couple who had gone through hard times together. So in a way we achieved something, but we certainly didn’t achieve what might be called a stable marriage.

You went to live in a hill farmhouse in North Wales which was a conscious decision to remove yourself from the world, to remain aloof. You write: ‘We had found some Garden. But how in a Garden does one learn?’ Did you mean it was not possible to learn in isolation, or what? 

I suppose I was playing around with the image of the Garden of Eden and the idea that if Adam and Eve had stayed in the Garden they would have remained happy children. In some way, if the world was to mean anything, they had to get out. Rosemary and I worked this hill farm and we were happy, and I wrote my first novel, and my second novel, and she painted pictures, but there was always something else happening. And in the end trying to cut ourselves off in Wales didn’t seem to work, I used the idea throughout the book that the point of life is to learn, to learn what one’s here for. The phrase ‘the meaning of life’ has become a sort of farcical phrase, a Monty Python joke, but I think it’s very interesting.

You record that you had inherited your father’s impulse to philander. Do you think these things are in any sense genetic, or does one learn by example? 

I should think mine was in some sense genetic. I certainly don’t think it was learning by example, because I wasn’t very conscious of my father. The time when I was on very close terms with him was when he was in gaol in the war and then just after the war, when he was absolutely not philandering. He was very exhausted, very run down after the war, and he went to the country and just led the life of a country gentleman. But although I had no example, it was true that in the world in which I grew up, the world of my father’s and mother’s friends, it was just taken for granted that one philandered. And what I wanted to do when I married Rosemary was to be able to feel free to flirt in a rather romantic manner, but I also wanted to be faithful to Rosemary; and of course that’s what didn’t work.

You say at another point in the book: ‘We are not trapped by our background; we can change ourselves and the world.’ This would seem to suggest that you could have become who you wanted, done what you wanted, and that everything including philandering, was optional…is that right? 

I can’t quite remember the context in which I said that, but I certainly didn’t really mean that. I don’t think one can change either oneself or the world; I don’t think one can change anything by effort of will. All one can do by will is observe what the case is, and I believe that has a very subtle power of changing the whole atmosphere. It’s quite a religious attitude, whether you call it mystical or Buddhist. The whole point of detachment is to be able to get oneself away from being trapped by one’s environment or heredity.

Regarding your love affairs, you write, ‘There is no point in guilt.’ There may be no point but did you suffer from guilt none the less? 

Oh yes, oh yes…certainly when I realized there were people being hurt. The thing about guilt is, you have to try and do something about it – either by breaking it off, or by talking and trying to find a way through. It is of course very difficult to go through life without causing any suffering to others. Even people who play things very carefully can cause suffering to others by being so cautious they won’t commit themselves. Parents who won’t show any emotions probably do as much damage as anyone.

The letters from Rosemary which you published are very critical of your behaviour. At the very least you emerge as someone who must have been very difficult to live with. Was it a hard decision to publish them, and did you do so unflinchingly? 

Well what happened was this: I thought Rosemary’s letters were absolutely first class, so my writer’s eye was caught just by their sheer quality. I also thought that a lot of the criticisms were valid. At the time when I was writing the first draft of the book, I had Rosemary’s letters to me, but I didn’t have mine to her. Rosemary was still alive then, though she wasn’t very well, but I thought that it would be a bad move to ask for my letters and to publish a kind of defence of myself – this was just the sort of thing that I didn’t want. I didn’t want to justify myself; I wanted her to put the case against me, and I wanted my answer to the case against me to be shown in her later letters. She also wrote me rather wonderful letters saying, ‘This is what life’s like, and you’ve done your best, you’ve fought; you’ve struggled along, I know you, you’re a very difficult person, but in some way that’s life, and isn’t all that bad.’

Do you perceive yourself as a difficult person to live with? 

Yes, I think so, partly because I probably am anyway, and partly because I’m a writer. Writers are people who want to poke their noses into everything. If you want to see how life works you have to look into the dark things, you have to be interested in everything, and I think that makes you difficult.

You have had a complicated relationship with religion, Christianity in particular. Would you describe it as a flirtation, a passionate affair, or something much more enduring and accepting? 

It’s enduring in the sense that something has endured. I started off being very agnostic, almost atheistic, and very critical. Then I met this strange holy man as I call him, Father Raynes, an Anglican monk, who had a tremendous effect on me. In fact my commitment was really almost to him, but through him I then committed myself to an orthodox way of life, or I tried to, with extreme difficulty. But by doing that, I learned that that wasn’t the point, that that was just a stage to go through. You go through a stage of being committed, being obedient, and then if you do this, what you learn is the opposite. You learn a sort of freedom; and that has been something outside you becomes something inside you. That’s the theory, and I think to a certain extent that did happen with me.

You were once hostile to the Christian God and unable to answer the question of how a good and all-powerful God could permit evil. How do you answer it now? 

That’s the heart of the thing. I think God’s goodness is quite a difficult quality from what humans think goodness ought to be. God’s love of man was that he gave the highest gift that man could have, which was freedom, the freedom to love in a world in which it wasn’t easy. If there isn’t any love, one isn’t a human being one’s a robot. I’m putting this in the rather old-fashioned terms of God the Father, but the way I look at it now is that although there is an enormous amount of evil in the world, if one looks at it and faces it, one is almost given what in the old language would be called a gift of grace. One is able to find a sense of rightness even given the appalling evil in the world.

Have you found it? 

You can’t say you’ve found it because you might lose it immediately, but the possibility is certainly there, even with the horrors going on in the world.

Does your faith extend to asking God’s forgiveness for misdemeanours? 

Oh yes, but one does this in a very offhand way. One asks for forgiveness, but not by heavy breast-beating….one says, oh God, I’ve done that, and I’m sorry.

Your novels – up until Hopeful Monsters – have generally been considered difficult, over intellectual, rather un-English in canonical terms. Did this reaction disappoint, or was it in line with your expectations? 

It wasn’t in line with my expectations. I was always hoping to be suddenly welcomed with, ‘Wow, isn’t this very interesting stuff!’ And to some extent that happened with Accident and Impossible Object, published at the end of the 1960s. I got quite a bit of recognition there but not on a grand scale. After that I went out on a limb. I didn’t just want to stay preening myself on the little limb I’d got to. But I don’t think anyone understood what I was getting up to at all. It wasn’t their fault; I just didn’t get it right.

You have sometimes seemed to bemoan the lack of ideas and intellectualism, and an over-concentration on character in the English novel compared with its European counterpart. There has never really been an intelligentsia in England in the European sense and, so doesn’t our novelistic tradition reflect the way things are? 

There isn’t perhaps an intelligentsia in England, but the literary crowd in England tend to write about oddballs and weirdos. I don’t think everyone in England is like that really. One’s always being told that ideas are so boring in England, and that all that’s interesting is sex and violence or shopping. There’s an awful lot of stupidity, because it’s the fashion not to talk about ideas, but to run people down and criticize.

A lot of what you call ‘the upper-class immunity against true feelings’ is bred and nourished in the public schools. One imagines that Eton might have been the perfect protection against an inner life. How did you manage to develop this inner life, to get in touch with your own feelings? 

The answer to that is that I had great friends. I had two or three really good personal friends who weren’t in the normal run of at Eton. When you’re at Eton you’re supposed only to have friends in your own house; it’s deemed rather bad form to have friends in other houses. But one friend was someone I had known in my infant school, another I had known at my prep school, and we talked about everything, and that’s what fed my own feelings.

Apropos your father’s infidelities which your father argued were trivial compared to the deep love he had for your mother, you write, ‘Perhaps in the end one does not have much chance of getting away with this sort of thing; but to be sure, people try.’ That makes it sound rather as if the problem is not the infidelity itself but the business of being found out…is that right? 

I think one is always found out; one finds out oneself. Infidelities take their own toll but I think you can learn from them, and you can learn how to be faithful. Quite a lot of people go through a stage of being unfaithful and then they learn that it’s not worth the candle. In the end you have to be found out if you’re ever to straighten things out. But I certainly don’t think it helps anyone to be unfaithful and then come home and pour it out. In the end, however, perhaps one’s responsibility is to be found out. It’s all a matter of timing.

How important do you think fidelity is in marriage? Do you think there is a correlation between fidelity and true love? 

It depends what sort of person one is. I don’t think one can manage true love by reining oneself in. If you have these energies, it’s not true love to sit on them and totally bottle them all up. Nor do I think it’s anything to do with love if you just go and gratify every instinct. True love is a genuine effort to try not to castrate one’s own feelings so that one withers and dies, at the same time as trying to respect other people’s feelings. This is a tightrope.

Diana’s reaction to the biography of your father was extremely complicated. It seems in the end to come down to the unacceptable or perhaps the unpalatable nature of truth. Did you not understand that Diana might have wanted to cling to her illusions are sometimes as important as reality? 

That’s very interesting. The answer is yes, except that my relationship with Diana over the years, ever since I first came across her when I was twelve, quite soon after my mother died, was always a very truthful one. I hope she wouldn’t disagree with this. She was one of the grown-ups I could talk to, and I felt she would always give me a truthful answer. As time went on, Diana and I had rows, but mostly by letter, and usually when I wouldn’t back my father about certain things. But always we had it out. She was a person who was always interested in the truth, and I’m sure she still is. When my father died she wanted me to write this book, and I used to go over and spend a lot of time with her in France, and she would talk about anything. We disagreed about some of the politics, but we disagreed in a completely gentle way. So the idea that Diana was someone who would always like to cling to illusions wasn’t there at all. She wanted to talk about the truth, about my father’s infidelity, about his politics, about the rightness and wrongness, about everything. It did strike me as I got to the end of the first part of the book that perhaps I was being a bit naive, and that when I had finished she might not like it. That she would need to feel a more pure loyalty to my father’s politics and what he was on and so on. This I think is what did happen. But there’s a part of Diana that has an extraordinary capacity to be truthful and to want to be truthful.

You acknowledge somewhere that biography, however much it intends to tell the true story, can never be complete. Isn’t there also a cause for saying that a son who writes the life of his father can never wholly and completely detach himself from the position of his father’s son, and that to this extent the story is coloured in much the same way as a wife’s story of her husband might be coloured? Can there be such a thing as a definitive biography? 

I suppose not. The first part of your question is absolutely true: the son can’t claim to be objective; he is writing his own birth and his own person is very coloured by being the son. That was why in my book I wanted to make it very plain that I realized that. I wanted to bring myself in as the observer, saying, this is my experience of myself looking at my father. I wanted to make it obvious that I was writing about the subject as well as the object. I shouldn’t think there is such a thing as a definitive biography. Once in a while one gets a miraculous work of literature, and one does have that feeling, but whether that feeling would ever be endorsed is another matter. The door is always open to other points of view.

When I interviewed Diana she told me that what she really minded about your biography of your father was not that you portrayed him as a philanderer, which she agrees he was, but that you made him out to be an essentially trivial person. Do you think there is a measure of truth in this? 

Oh no, I really don’t at all. I don’t understand why she thinks that. I haven’t seen Diana since the book came out but I have recently had a little correspondence again with her, from which I gather that she thinks I trivialized his politics. I thought I dealt with them as well as a layman writing for lay people could. With hindsight of course one can see that some of his political ideas were wrong, but they were very heartfelt and I think I gave them full prominence.

What Diana really objects to is that you do not suggest anywhere that he was a brilliant thinker or that he could have made a difference to the world had his ideas been accepted. She told me, ‘Instead he is portrayed as some kind of playboy, which is too absurd when you think of what the man was.’ Did you ever come to feel that perhaps the balance was slightly wrong? 

No, I don’t think so. He had a great brilliance for lucid exposition, but in other areas his ideas did not amount to all that much; they were too vague. They were too much of the sort, ‘Oh well, all we’ve got to do in South Africa is move all the blacks here, and all the whites there.’ The reason that isn’t a brilliant idea is that it’s totally incompatible. In two ways only was he brilliant: his economic ideas in the 1920s were brilliant; and he was a most brilliant expounder of ideas.

Diana also says that you have ‘a complete obsession’ about your father which she suggests is the consequence of tremendous jealousy. Do you find this very wounding? 

I find it absurd, I just can’t see it. I was always on very good terms with my father. Jealousy of what? His philandering? I don’t even know what I am supposed to be jealous of. I wasn’t jealous of him as a public figure because I’ve never had any aspirations to be a public figure at all; it just never entered my head. I was never in any conceivable competition.

Are relations still cool between you and Diana? 

Well, I rather hope not. When I wanted to publish her letters in my autobiographical book, I did write to her for permission, and quite understandably I thought she’d say ne, and she did say no, but that opened up a correspondence between us. I certainly don’t want to put my foot in it again, and I hope we’ve come, or are coming, to some sort of understanding, and I hope that it will go on. But of course there’s a lot of deep feeling. For some reason she was profoundly upset by my book, and I don’t quite understand it. It is not enough to say that I trivialized my father; I always feel there’s something else.

Do you admire Diana? 

Oh yes, I admire her. Think of her life – it’s been a fantastic life. She was the most beautiful and admired young girl, not just in England, but in Europe, and she gave up everything for my father. She was only twenty-nine when she went to gaol and she was in Holloway for three years. It’s extraordinary, her loyalty and her courage, and her good nature and her fearful guts. All through her life she was most totally loyal to my father, and she adored him; but also she saw him clearly, and was very honest about him. I really admire her for all those reasons. Of course, I think she was rather silly in the 1930s when she admired Hitler so much, but she was very young.

Despite the fact that you were on good terms with your father some years before he died, he still cut you out of his will. Was that a bitter blow? 

I was rather unfair about that. That’s one of the things I have tried to put right in the paperback edition of my biography. The phrase ‘cut me out of his will’ was a bit over-dramatic, so I’ve altered it to ‘he left me out of his will’. I actually thought it quite reasonable that he shouldn’t leave money to my sister, my brother and me, since we all got money from my mother. Under the French law, the Code Napoleon, we would have some claim on his property in France, but Diana said that he did not want that to happen, so we voluntarily signed away our rights after his death. What did irk me at the time was that Diana wrote me a letter, not only asking me to sign away my rights, but also saying, ‘Your father left you out of his will because you were not his sort of person.’ I was irked by that, if irk is the right word, but part of me said, OK, I’ll sign away my rights, I’ll make no fuss about that, but I’m jolly well going to quote it.

Is it true, do you think? 

It is true that he said it, it’s true that Diana told me, and it’s also true that for quite large periods of time my father didn’t like my whole tie-up with Christianity; he was always very hostile to that. And so in that respect I was not his sort of person. But I also think in some ways I was the closest to him of his children.

Your most successful novel Hopeful Monsters is widely thought to be about the getting of wisdom…would you agree with that? 

The concept of the ‘hopeful monster’ is based on the idea that every now and then there is a mutation in a species that is more suitable to the environment than the old strain, and this is a combination of being ready for that sort of chance and then the chance of it happening – the tie-up between a chance event in the individual and the external world. That’s all a bit airy fairy, but certainly what I’m saying in Hopeful Monsters is that if we’re not more wise about ourselves, more detached, able to see what we really are, then we’re in danger of the whole human race getting into real trouble.

The ‘hopefulness’ of the title seems to express your own view of life. Is your optimism innate in your character, or has it been achieved through your experience of life, and held on to during difficult times? 

I think it’s been achieved. When I was a young man I think I was very gloomy, prone to great periods of depression and despair. What I’m optimistic about is that there’s a sort of chance. What I mean by that is that if one gets the right attitude, then there is something in life that is not necessarily hostile. If one is ready for them, chances do occur.

You admire Faulkner’s The Wild Palms on the grounds that the hero has chosen grief rather than nothing. You say, ‘This was the book I once loved beyond all others.’ On the face of it this does not seem to accord with your stated views on hopefulness. Is grief a viable way of life? 

No, I think you’re right about that. Up to when I was about thirty I used to think it was wonderful, but Wild Palms is a pessimistic book. Faulkner’s later books are actually full of optimism, but like everyone else he found it harder to write about. It’s much easier to write about grief, happiness being much more still and hidden. The trouble about being hopeful is, you can’t talk about it too much; as soon as you say, ‘I’m really hopeful,’ you sound like a fool, and you’re just asking for the roof to fall in on your head.

It seems from all you say and write that you believe in the possibility of goodness. Do you believe also that goodness triumphs over evil? 

One can say it does because we’re still going; the human race is still staggering along. And in spite of what people say, the world is probably a kinder place than it was a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred years ago, even knowing what we do about what’s going on in Bosnia or South America, or wherever.

You resigned from the Booker Prize jury because your fellow judges seemed to prefer novels which depicted what you call ‘the terrible quaintness of human characters’. What exactly did you mean by that, and why was it necessary to resign? 

Why it was necessary to resign is a different question. There were five judges and we had to find six books to go on the short list. My six books were books that no one else had chosen but I thought that I would get at least one on to the list. I didn’t. In the end it all depended on the chairman’s casting vote, and when he said, ‘I cast my vote against you,’ I thought, what’s the point of my being a judge if I can’t even get one book on. I wanted to make a dissenting statement and the only way I could make a dissenting statement was by resigning. So I resigned. As far as the terrible quaintness of human characters is concerned, that is the English tradition of novel writing. For example, what Dickens is famous for is all these wonderfully quaint characters – I used the word ‘quaint’ quite carefully, because it has both not too bad a ring to it but also not too good. We love to read his novels and say, ‘Oh isn’t he a card!’ and, ‘Isn’t Mr Pecksniff awful!’ as though the interesting thing about life was how you could be an oddity, and that was the whole be-all and end-all of it. I feel I’m fighting some sort of lone battle for people who are interested in more than just being fearfully quaint.

There are those who would always say that your life has been lived in painful reaction to your father. Would they be wholly wrong to say that? 

I don’t know if they’d be wholly wrong. I’ve had to do battle with things which might have haunted me, but I feel I’ve got over most of that stuff quite a long time ago.

The differences between father and son are very marked. Your father was a man of strong convictions, you seem to be more doubtful. Your father was in love with rhetoric, you are more aware of the qualities and nuances of the language. He wanted power, you seem uninterested in power, and so on. Are there nevertheless ways in which you are inescapably your father’s son? 

I think I’ve got his love of ideas and speculation, and something of his sense of humour. When he wasn’t being a big rhetorician, he had this extraordinary sense of fun, and I certainly hope I’ve got that from him. I’ve got none of his love of power, and I think certainty is almost always false; the only truth is in the search, it’s never in the certainty.

Has your attitude towards him mellowed in the sense that you tend to make more excuses for him now? 

When he was still marching up and down in the East End with a whole lot of anti-Semitic people, or even after the war when he was up in Notting Hill, making speeches which, however subtle, could certainly be taken as anti-black, it was extremely hard to be sympathetic. But then when he was an old man, he would say, ‘Oh, we made a few mistakes in those days. Although it was not really quite enough to say ‘we made a few mistakes’, I found I could get on with him. He was very gentle, very mellow in his old age, and it was easy for oneself also to be mellow.

Have you given your own children a difficult legacy, would you say? 

Possibly yes, but one thing you can be sure is we can all talk about it, and laugh about it. My second son was joking recently about my autobiography, saying he found certain things difficult. But he’s now in his forties, and he knows one has a hard time, and one makes the best of one’s life. But actually my children all seem to be making much more of a success of being good, responsible human beings, fathers and husbands, than I ever did.

What do you most regret doing, or not doing? 

I would have liked to have been a better person to Rosemary, my first wife. I don’t dwell on it, since in some ways we did our best. I am so pleased that we were on very good terms at the end, but I would just like not to have been such a tormented selfish person when I was young. But then I might not have written my book, I don’t know.

The leitmotif of your latest book seems to be the driving out of the devil, and the seven devils which come to replace that one devil. Was your autobiography an exorcism of the devils, or are you still beset by demons? 

I was very much struck by that parable in the Bible; and yes, perhaps when one thinks one’s straightened out something, a whole lot of other problems appear. I feel now on the whole there aren’t so many devils coming in, perhaps because it suddenly isn’t worth their while. One never quite gets over devils, but I think they finally get fed up. No doubt they think it’s not worth going on haunting one. And then one becomes mellow, rather like my father did.

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