Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Joker’s Really Wild

When people like Jeremy Corbyn can become the leader of the British Labour Party, would the world be surprised if Donald Trump attains the same stature within the Republican Party in the US?

However, both are unlikely to gain the ultimate power in their respective countries for the majority of their electorates, when it comes to the crunch, are unlikely to vote for them for fear of an impending catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn is a nice man but a dreamer from a bygone era, when the policies he now embraces are no longer acceptable in an age when competitive ardour fuels the individual and greed for money is the motivating factor. Equality is almost a dirty word in the economic vocabulary of a free society, where achievements are looked upon as the ultimate objective of every able individual who craves for wealth and recognition. Take the incentives away and poverty will be more widespread, as the nation would suffer a bout of hunger which would become endemic in everything we do.

Both candidates represent a danger to the prosperity of their own country, if by any remote chance they are given the reins to achieve their misguided brains’ divergence from reality.

As for Donald Trump, no one would venture to call him a nice man. He’s far from it. He’s a ruthless, odious man, full to the brim with his own wealth and importance. He despises those who don’t agree with him and one might call him a political bully. He campaigns by trading insults and is a right-wing manic who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. He frightens the life out of many people by his extreme pronunciations on topics vital to the nation and gets comfort from being abusive in order to get his point across in a debate.

Trump brings his juvenile derision at every stage in his campaign and goes as far as demeaning even the looks of his opponents. Nothing to him is sacrosanct and yet a good majority of the US public seem to be enthralled by his rhetoric and approve of his tactics to browbeat his interlocutors. Being the bull in a china shop suits him admirably and, like a dog with a bone, he never lets go.

In the US, although to some he appears as the joker in the pack, his threat to succeed to the White House should never be underestimated, especially in today’s climate when nothing is beyond the realms of possibility, and success makes a fool look wise.

Manna from Heaven

One used his to go tiger hunting; another fitted wash basins in the boot. The most eccentric Indian prince of all converted six of his into rubbish trucks, after feeling slighted by the British manufacturer.

Nicola Smith, writing in the Sunday Times last week, told the story of the extraordinary love affair between Indians and their Rolls-Royces, seen as the ultimate status symbol in 1900 Colonial India. This has been revealed in two new volumes by John Fasal, a British pensioner.

His accounts of the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys of princely India, to be published next year, are the culmination of almost fifty years of meticulous research during which he ploughed through company records and spoke to eighty-six out of six hundred Indian royal families.

Fasal’s investigations show how the Rolls-Royce became the perfect accessory to the maharajahs’ flamboyant and luxurious lifestyles, lived in a blur of hunting, garden parties and summer trips to London.

The Maharajah of Gwalior, Central India, began the craze when he bought a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, known as the ‘Pearl of the East’, in 1908. Price was no barrier. The cost of a Rolls-Royce in the Edwardian era was about £1,300 – the equivalent of £250,000 today.

Mere ownership of the car was not enough for the Rajah of Monghyr in the state of Bihar. He ordered a jeweller in Calcutta to decorate his Roller with traditional Indian carvings in ornate silver. ‘It looked like a Christmas tree,’ said Fasal, seventy, who lives in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire and who has archive photographs of the car among two thousand original images that he collected from India.

In one, the Queen of Nandgaon, in the State of Uttar Pradesh, is seen waving from an upside down Rolls after a crash. Among Fasal’s sources for the two volumes was Gayatri Devi, who was descended from the Cooch Behar dynasty in West Bengal, but became the last Queen of Jaipur in Rajasthan, a desert state in Northern India. Born in 1910, Devi was voted one of the most beautiful women in the world by Vogue and was the darling of society columnists after she fell in love with Man Singh, the heir to the throne of Jaipur.

Gayatri Devi was once voted one of the world's most beautiful women

Gayatri Devi was once voted one of the world’s most beautiful women

The most extravagant of the princes, Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, in the northern state of Punjab, had twenty-five Silver Ghosts among his forty-four Rolls-Royces – enough to transport his fifty-two children. ‘I got to know several of his children. Because there were fifty-two of them. They called themselves the Pack of Cards,’ said Fasal. ‘Their childhood was a fairy tale, with viceroys coming, garden parties, the champagne flowing.’

One of Singh’s Silver Ghosts has returned home to Britain and now sits fully restored in a converted barn next to Fasal’s house. The car was badly damaged in an accident in 1932 that killed one of the Maharajah’s daughters. Singh gave it to a businessman on the condition that it would never again be driven in Patiala.

Fasal said one of his ‘greatest disappointments’ was that his work on the Maharajahs had taken him so long. ‘When I went to India at first I was dealing with the grandfathers of the present maharajahs and now I’m a grandfather myself,’ he said. ‘I would like to think it’s a Rolls-Royce job. You don’t want to do a Mini-Minor job on a Rolls-Royce book.’

manwhobuiltWell, the death of Brian Sewell recently prompted the release of his book about Rolls-Royce entitled The Man Who Built the Best Car in the World, which was scheduled to be published in early November. Brian, who was a compulsive car lover, wanted his book, beautifully illustrated by Stefan Marjoram, to be available sooner in the event of his death.

Rolls-Royce lovers, who share the same love as Brian, I’m sure would be pleased. And for his legacy, it is the equivalent of manna from heaven.

The Magic of Red

What is it about the colour red that incites the bull to a furious reaction tantamount to a deadly challenge that costs it its life? Yet to humans the colour has more than one significance.

A red-light district is one that denotes an area where sex is purchased during a brief encounter in a variety of ways. Red also spells danger where the extent of risk cannot be properly quantified. And despite all this red has its magic where the fashion industry is concerned.

Whether it is a smudge of lipstick or a bright dress, the colour red has long been associated with the power of seduction.

But apparently this is not just a cliche. Wearing red does actually make women feel sexier, according to a new study.

One in four women surveyed said that they wore a red outfit when they wanted to look seductive, making it the most popular colour for impressing a potential partner. One in six said wearing red made them feel sexiest – and the same proportion chose pink.

The survey of two thousand Britons found women felt the most confident wearing black – perhaps explaining its popularity in the workplace.

Men also favoured black when they wanted to feel at their best, with one in three choosing the colour.

Yellow was the most unpopular colour for both sexes, with one in three respondents claiming they would never wear it. Both men and women were also likely to feel unattractive in green.

Aside from clothing choices, around half of the women who took part in the survey said getting enough sleep was particularly important for their well-being.

Food firm Alpro commissioned the survey to celebrate its sponsorship of the recent London Fashion Week. An Alpro spokesman said, ‘It seems that despite constantly changing fashions, it is the trusted shades that we turn to if we are dressing to impress – be it in the workplace or if we are trying to catch someone’s eye in a romantic sense.’

But that in itself does not explain the strong passion that red seems to generate in humans, as well as the fighting bull in a Spanish arena. Perhaps we are closer to animals than we care to admit.

Mary Warnock

Mary Warnock was born in 1924 and is a life fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, of which she was mistress from 1985-91.

She was educated at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and became a fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. From 1966-72 she was headmistress at Oxford High School.

In the early 1980s she chaired the Inquiry into Human Fertilisation which resulted in the controversial Warnock Report. More recently she chaired the Advisory Group on Medical Ethics. Her publications include Ethics Since 1900, A Common Policy for Education, The Uses of Philosophy and Imagination and Time.

I interviewed her in 1997.

It is said that you do not mind being included in the ranks of the great and the good. What do you yourself understand by this?

The great and the good are a collection of people who have time and willingness to learn and are prepared to serve on government committees of enquiry. These committees serve quite a useful function. They are not just ways for the government to get off the hook for a bit, as some people believe.

You are sometimes considered to be a role model for twentieth-century women, having combined marriage, motherhood and a demanding profession. That’s quite an achievement given that in 1950 you were the first married fellow of your college in Oxford. Did you never feel disadvantaged as a woman? 

An academic profession is not quite like a profession in, say, the civil service, or in chambers. It’s very flexible, so it was much the easiest to combine with having children. I certainly didn’t feel disadvantaged, because I was a member of an all-women’s college then and I was very decently treated.

Did you ever consider yourself part of the feminist movement? 

My sympathy with the feminist movement is moderate. I am very much in favour of there not being a ceiling beyond which women can’t go, and I would want women to do whatever they thought they possibly could, but I’m not in favour of any aspects of the feminist movement that are anti-men. That’s what I dislike.


You regard your own background as privileged, despite the fact that your father died before you were born. Has his awareness of privilege always been an unqualified advantage in your life, would you say?


It has. My mother was reasonably well off which meant that I could have music lessons and other opportunities which gave me enormous pleasure. When my own children were growing up, far more was possible for children without their having to pay for it, and this was an enormous advance. But in my day a wealthy family was a terrific advantage. It was also assume that you could go to university and enter the professions which other people couldn’t. My family were particularly self-admiring, if I can put it that way. We were brought up to think that we came from a wonderful talented background, and therefore that we would go ahead and do something with it.


Your eldest daughter Kitty said of you that it is one of your strengths of character that you think that everything you do is unique and wonderful…would you agree with that?


I agree entirely. I know my children find me terribly boring in that I’m always yacking on about my childhood. One of my sisters and I regard our childhood in a particular way. We adored it and we can talk about it endlessly; it is a kind of benchmark of how exciting things can be. But Kitty was certainly right in criticizing me for this.


Apparently you don’t think of yourself as having been ‘a proper mother’. What do you mean by that?


I remember one time when I was talking about how I might stop working and devote myself to writing when the children were all off my hands, and my eldest son said to me: ‘Proper mothers think of starting work when their children leave home, you think if stopping it.’ He was also critical of the fact that proper mothers in Oxford were always getting together wonderful picnics and going off in the car, and I never did that. I never had time.


Did you ever suffer from guilt in the way that most women do?


I suffered acute guilt. It was mainly because I had to hire nannies who in the beginning were awful and terribly unreliable. I spent a frightful amount of my early married life worrying about whether these people were adequate, and whether they were good for the children. Later on we had some good people and I didn’t have to worry any more. I had a great dispute with Geoffrey about who were the good nannies. My favourites were some Irish Catholic girls who succeed one another, sister after sister, and who were looked after by the local church so I didn’t have to worry about them. But Geoffrey was an Ulsterman through and through, and he didn’t like the fact that they were Irish Catholics and used to think they would have TB.


Your husband Geoffrey was a fellow philosopher. Would you describe the marriage as principally a marriage of minds, or was it of the more normal passion and love?


It was certainly a marriage of passion and love, but on the other hand I don’t think I could ever have fallen in love with anyone who wasn’t my intellectual superior. I have a passion for learning and for being taught, and Geoffrey taught me an enormous amount, not only about philosophy, but also about economics and politics and all the things we had in common all through our married life. I’m sure I couldn’t have committed myself sexually to somebody who was my intellectual inferior.


You lived quite separate lives at times…



Only in the sense that he used to go to America for whole semesters and I was at home with the children. Also right at the end of our careers I went off to Cambridge for five years while he was still at Oxford, but we were always perfectly capable of living on our own and communicating by letter and telephone at weekends.


So it was never a threat to your marriage?


Not at all. Of course people thought it a bit weird when I went off to Girton, but my youngest daughter said, ‘They’re stupid to say that your marriage is splitting up – it just shows what a wonderful marriage it is.’ And I think she was right.


You apparently regarded philosophy as your discipline rather than your vocation. What are the implications of that in practice?


What I’m most interested in is the history of ideas. I am not and never could be an original philosophical thinker, but philosophy is my discipline in the sense that that’s what I read when I as an undergraduate and that was what I enjoyed, and what I went on to teach.


Do you think that philosophers have any particular insight into the difference between right and wrong?


No, but they can play a fairly useful role in suggesting limits to what can be hoped for in getting an agreement about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s an analytical approach, but in my particular case it is always tempered by an interest in what people in the past thought about morality.


What then are the particular skills that a philosopher might bring to a moral discussion?


Caution. Also identifying where something is a matter of absolute principle. One of the great problems in legislation, certainly in legislation based on morality, is the difference between uncompromising people who have their own principles and yet who are prepared to accept that their principles need to be modified for the real world, and those fanatics, like some of the Moslem absolutists, who are not prepared to regard the real world as necessarily falling below their high principles. That is a great difficulty nowadays. I hate fanaticism. The notion of an ideal as opposed to what can be achieved is a very important one in morality, and certainly in legislation, and some fundamentalists don’t accept the distinction.


Your name is most famously associated with the controversial report on human fertilization and embryology. When you considered all the arguments and finally submitted your judgement, did you think that you had arrived at some sort of truth, or at least the correct view? Or was it more like a flawed compromise?


I think it was the last of those. I always felt very envious of some of my colleagues who looked at the report from a philosophical point of view and said that the argument should have been pushed through to its conclusion. I would love to have come at the issues from a purely philosophical point of view, but I was very conscious of the fact that we were hired, so to speak, to advise ministers, and you can always advise ministers to introduce a legislation that is wholly logical. However, compromise is not necessarily a flaw. We were not selected to air our own moral views, or even to come up with a philosophical solution to a problem, though these contributed to the result. We were really put there to produce a practical solution that might get through parliament. I constantly had to remind my colleagues of that.


If I can put the question another way, did you submit your report in a spirit of humility before the complexity of the issues, or was your feeling more one of absolute confidence?


Certainly not the latter. I knew right at the beginning that we would not reach a unanimous conclusion. One of the members, for example, was a Roman Catholic neurologist, a very nice man and a competent committee member, but I knew he wouldn’t compromise his principle about all life being equally valuable. He didn’t talk ignorantly about the moment of conception – he was a doctor and knew better – but from when the embryo first began to form, he was in favour of giving it absolute protection. In fact the minority report he submitted was one of the best-argued cases for no research using human embryos that I’ve ever seen before or since. So I was aware that there were issues on which we couldn’t possibly hope to get agreement.


Could I go a little further here? The dissent within your committee showed that whatever the benefits to mankind of research on the embryo there are those who will remain adamant that it is a bad, evil business. You said at the time, and have said since, that the opponents must have their say and that all shades of belief must be reflected. What I wonder is this: how is it decided not to give any weight to these views? I mean, what is the point in their having their say if at the end of the day it is not going to count for anything?


There is actually no compromise possible between those who want research using human embryos to be prohibited altogether, and those who want it to be prohibited except in certain circumstances – which is the solution that we recommended and which was accepted by Parliament. You ask what we use it for them to have their say if they don’t win? Well, it’s of enormous use because the whole point of that kind of debate is that they might win in the end. They are freely able to put their point, and still do, and they may eventually persuade people. The pro-life people who sent foetuses through the post are more likely to make enemies than converts, but those who put their view soberly and with conviction are just as likely to make converts as I am.


The pro-lifers are an ever increasing minority, especially in America now. Do you regard them as fanatics?


I do, because they are prepared to take violent steps and have no interest in reasoned arguments. I distinguish very sharply between people who are pro-lifers and those like the unfortunate Duke of Norfolk who was obliged as a senior Catholic to adopt the view put forward by the Pope. He didn’t actually have a great deal of conviction in himself, but he did his duty nobly. Similarly I respect my old friend Frank Langford who feels very passionately about it and continues to argue and debate, but he is quite different from the pro-lifers who are prepared to intervene without argument.


You allow that sentiment has a place in moral reasoning. What sort of place does it have and what degree of importance should it be accorded?


It has enormous importance, because I don’t think there could be any such thing as morality unless there were what Hume referred to as our moral sense. If morality were a simple matter of calculating the consequences, then there would be no difference between morality and expediency. You have to embrace an ideal, and you can’t do that without loving it and hating its opposite. Sentiment is at the very centre of morality. This is partly what makes it so difficult to teach children to distinguish between right and wrong. You’ve got to get them to like the good, and be ashamed of or hate the bad. It’s those Aristotelian feelings of shame and admiration that one’s got to inculcate into children.


David Hume wrote that morality was ‘more properly felt than judged of’. You have spent many years chairing committees and looking at evidence and writing reports – is this judging rather than feeling?


No, I agree with Hume absolutely. What I do believe is that you can’t adopt a moral attitude to something if you don’t know what you’re talking about. So on the embryology committee, for example, the first task of the members was to learn the facts about embryological life, of which most of us – even some medical members – were profoundly ignorant. What I object to is people coming out immediately like pub bored with their gut reaction, saying there ought to be a law against it. Understanding what it is you’re talking about is of prime importance if you’re going to make moral pronouncements.


But isn’t it the case that the majority of people are completely inarticulate about moral issues? They don’t produce rational arguments for or against a particular moral question, they just feel it to be right or wrong…


Yes. There were certainly people on that committee who were forever saying, I don’t feel quite happy about that, and I was reduced saying to one bishop’s wife: ‘We’re not brought into this world to feel happy. Tell me what it is you think is wrong.’ It is a very valuable lesson for people on any kind of public body, whether it’s local government or parish council, to be made to think why they’re against it. In the end they may say, I don’t know, I just can’t quite reconcile myself to it, and that’s important too, but they should come to that only after they’ve had a go at thinking. Feeling is not the first and last thing in moral judgements, but it is right at the base of them.


What about instances where democracy is made subordinate to what might be called liberal morality? The most famous example is probably the issue of capital punishment which the vast majority of people in this country would probably be in favour of restoring…why should your view and those of the liberal establishment hold sway?


It’s a terribly interesting question that. I don’t believe that the referendum kind of solution to complicated problems is ever going to be a proper democratic solution. You can’t make a moral judgement unless you know what you’re talking about. In the case of capital punishment you have to look at the factual evidence of whether capital punishment acts as a deterrent or not. You also have to consider the horrendous consequences of wrongful conviction , how that is utterly irreversible, and the awful weight of one’s conscious if an innocent person has been hanged. So I think one can argue that there are ways of persuading people whose gut reaction would be to bring back the gallows that the consequences of doing so are potentially worse.


There are many who consider hanging to be barbaric…what about those who say that experimentation on embryos at any stage is barbaric?


I would dissent from that comparison. I can see there are reasons why one might say that research using human embryos shouldn’t occur, either on grounds of principle or on grounds of the slippery slope argument – that is to say, if you allow this, God know what else you would allow. But to suggest that such goings on were barbaric would beg the question about the status of the four-cell embryo, because it would imply that it was a human being with full rights. My view would be that the four cell embryo is not a human being with full rights. Although it’s human and alive, it can’t feel anything, it hasn’t got a central nervous system and it is not even one individual thing but maybe two things or no thing in the end. In other words you can’t disregard the differences between four cells and a human person. Now barbarism seems to me to be a concept that applies between monstrous people and humans. Barbarism is an outrage against a human being. I also think that it suggests an archaic, uncivilized way of going on, whereas research in the laboratory is far from archaic and uncivilized.


Does the man on the Clapham omnibus have any sort of representation in the moral life of this country?


The man on the Clapham omnibus would be outraged at the thought of an ageing frail man being mugged and his savings being taken off him and being left for dead. This is a monstrous immorality, but unfortunately it is something that happens. What is so threatening to our society is the growth of a kind of underclass of youngish people who don’t understand moral concepts at all, who don’t have any notion of morality. If they become more numerous and don’t care whether what they are doing is either illegal or immoral, then this is frightening. The criminal law is a kind of crystallization of what most people think is right and wrong. We mostly think killing people is wrong, that stealing is wrong, and therefore the man on the Clapham omnibus is terribly important. He’s the foundation of the whole of criminal law, and if he didn’t think these things we’d be in deep trouble.


Do you think that there has been a moral decline in this country?


Yes, I do. There’s been an enormous increase in greed and violence which people don’t seem to care about any longer. For example, consider these careless phrases that are used, like ‘an offer I couldn’t refuse’. I remember being deeply shocked the first time I heard that phrase from an undergraduate at Girton. He was a committed civilization man, that is to say he deeply wanted to civilize people. He was a classicist, an historian, and he had committed himself to teaching and he was looking forward to it. Then he rather shamefacedly said, ‘I’ve had an offer I could not refuse’ – this was from the City. And I thought, ‘Well damn it, you could have refused it, you could have been this wonderful classics teacher that you wanted to be.’ I was horrified. That mentality of greed is very dangerous.


What about sex…has there been a decline there?


On the whole no. In fact there’s a great deal that’s improved because of the better account that’s taken of women. The bad thing in my view is people’s longing to know about everybody else’s sexual goings on. I hate the openness that is required of one nowadays. I loathe seeing advertisements saying ‘regardless of race and sexual orientation’. What the hell is your sexual orientation to do with the employer?


What do you think about politicians and so-called sleaze?

There’s an awful lot of hypocrisy about this actually. Discretion is a terribly important virtue here. I don’t believe you should dig up things about a politician which may or may not be true and then say he ought to resign. Heaven knows, if that happened across the board, the whole world would be resigning. I don’t see why politicians should be more subject to this than you and me. Whether they’re good politicians or statesmen is really nothing whatever to do with their private lives.


You crossed swords with Enoch Powell – the complete opposite of the man on the Clapham omnibus – over embryo experimentation. You said that the moment he called his bill The Protection of the Unborn Child you knew you had no respect for him…this was because the phrase ‘unborn child’ was not a dispassionate use of language, or was there more to it than that?


No, it was entirely the use of the word ‘child’ which prejudged the issue. To call the four-cell embryo a child immediately had taken a partisan view, and, heaven knows, he’s quite bright enough to understand that. It wasn’t an accident as it might have been with a stupid man, and that’s what I had against it. He deliberately adopted a particular view and put it into the title of a bill. I regard that as a misuse of a bill.


Can you be completely confident that your own passionately held feelings – or even prejudices – as a distinct from rational arguments are never brought to bear on the moral issues you have been asked to investigate?


No, of course I can’t. Part of my thesis about the nature of morality is that it must be based on feeling. On the other hand I’d object to your saying that I have passionately held views – actually I don’t give a damn about embryology. This is one of the things one is always stuck with: one is always supposed to have entered deeply into and feel terribly strongly about the issue before the committee. If I had not chaired the committee I would never have entered into this field of investigation or had any views about it at all. There is a great distinction between learning about a subject and feeling passionately about it. If you told me that I was never going to hear another argument about embryology again I’d be thankful.


Do you actually believe that sound moral values have been revealed to us by God…in the form of the commandments and Jesus Christ?


No, Jesus Christ is a separate matter, but I don’t see why we should think that the ten commandments, which were obviously the basis of the Jewish religion up to a point, have any particular status. I think what happens is that a kind of morality develops very slowly and sometimes very powerfully in the case of Judaism. Although I have a great interest in Judaism and I admire it in many ways, Christianity was a marked improvement morally on Judaism. I’m afraid I take the line that the notion that God told us these things is a way of expressing the fact that they have acquired an enormous authority; it’s a way of designating the authority which these laws have.


I read somewhere that you regard the whole of Christianity as a hugely helpful metaphor which you would hate to be without. What do you actually mean by ‘a hugely helpful metaphor’ and what implications does it have for your professional life?


Very few for my professional life, which has been entirely philosophical in the sense of analytic. My way of thinking about Christianity is that one can’t live – or if one does it’s in an impoverished way – without a tradition, and I think that traditions generate their own authority. I’m a great believer in the power of tradition and inherited beliefs and I would be sorry if the enrichment which Christianity bestows becomes more and more eroded – as I happen to think it does by people jumping up and down in chapel with guitars. I don’t consider myself to be extremely religious and I certainly don’t believe in an afterlife. I think that dead people do have enormous effect afterwards on the people they’ve known during their lives, but that’s rather different. I’m prepared to go along with people who say, ‘How can I possibly know what happens after I’m dead, but I think I do know.’ The concept of the resurrection of the body is a contradiction, but I interpret the life of the world to come in a very different sense, which is that one can now affect how things are in the future. One does keep people alive in one’s mind, not just people one’s fond of, but people like David Hume. It is quite difficult to think of him as dead, when to me he’s a very influential figure.


But you don’t expect a day of judgement…


Mercifully no. I’d hate to have that hanging over me. The downside is that I’m not going to watch Match of the Day with my dead husband, but it also has its good side in that I’m not going to be called to account at the pearly gates.


An amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill was passed in the Lords making it an offence to use the eggs from foetuses or corpses for fertilization research. You referred to those who supported the amendment as ‘the Catholic mafia’. What distinguishes the Catholic mafia from, say, the Jewish mafia who oppose AID, for example, and what exactly is wrong with a view which is sincerely held and in itself is not offensive?


It was a foolish phrase to have used, and I take it back. I am sometimes provoked by the assumption of righteousness in the people who condemn any future developments, but no, I shouldn’t have used that phrase and I willingly withdraw it. The mafia element of it was simply because I felt undue force or violence was being used, but it’s a phrase that contains force and violence itself and so I should refrain from using it.


Would you allow that there are some sort of conviction, partly religious beliefs, which resist evidence? Most of us prejudge certain issues, most of us are touched by prejudice. Are you any different from the rest of us in this respect?


No, of course not. I’ve got hundreds of prejudices, and I also know there are people who have principles that they’re not going to give up, and I respect them for it.


After the Warnock report you took up the cause of universities and published a pamphlet attacking government policies. Are you angered by the fact that rather less notice has been taken of your views on higher education, in that the universities are still underfunded and that academics continue to leave the country and so on?


Here is something I really do feel passionate about. And it is not the result of having sat on a committee; it’s something that I am deeply upset about. I think that the erosion of the universities is one of the most terrible things that has happened in my lifetime. I say this because I love the idea of the university as it used to be. The notion of research and teaching going on side by side, interwoven with one another, the idea of an intellectual elite of people who want to pursue learned subjects whether scientific or in humanities – these are things it would be terrible for a country to be without. That would be barbarism. It is monstrous the way the universities are downgraded and indeed education as a whole is treated with contempt. Those politicians who say that education is at the top of their priorities have no idea what they mean by education. We are turning into a barbarous nation.


You have spoken of the government’s deep dislike of the intellectual. How does this manifest itself, do you think?


It was made particularly obvious in Lady Thatcher’s day. She ran a campaign against intellectuals because she had a passion for entrepreneurs and people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, people who could make a lot of money quickly. And because she was so completely given over to the needs of industry, I think she really did seriously doubt whether there was any point in universities. She thought them self-indulgent, the humanities in particular. It might be good that people got degrees in engineering and conceivably physics and chemistry, but as for a degree in history, she really did regard that as an indulgence that ought to be watched very carefully.


Is the deep dislike of the intellectual confined to the government or does it seep through other political parties, do you think?


It has seeped through other political parties. The economic consequences of Thatcherite policies and the general desire to get university education on the cheap have had consequences that go on today. It’s endemic in English life now. We’re not inclined to admire academics in the way the French or Germans do.


You were at Oxford with Lady Thatcher for whom you seem to have a thinly disguised contempt. In the Daily Telegraph you spoke of her ‘odious suburban geniality’ and said that she ‘epitomized the worst of the lower middle class’. You later said that your remarks were quoted out of context – what was the context exactly?


The exact context was that I thought I was having a private conversation with a journalist called Graham Turner. At the time we had staying with us an American columnist who remarked that what he found amazing as a visitor to this country was the fact that people who disliked Mrs Thatcher personally would nevertheless vote for her. He was questioning me in the presence of Graham Turner about this phenomenon and what I said was that I could quite understand that if you watched her waddling around like a partridge in her bright blue suits she was a figure of fun, and I went on and on in my snobbish way about those awful blouses she used to wear with floppy collars, but I also said that people would still vote for her because they admired what she did. Graham Turner took my remarks out of context, and I never forgave him actually.


About ten years ago I interviewed nearly three hundred women for a book. They came from all walks of life but what they had in common was that nearly all of them disliked Mrs Thatcher immensely…


I’m sure that’s true. And she herself disliked women of course. She was much more willing to use the talents of men until they got above themselves. To my great shame I used to be able to detect the same trait in myself when I first started examining in schools in Oxford. I was usually the only woman on the board of examiners in those days, and I used to have a terrible suspicion of first-class women, and I was inclined to be much more critical of them than I was of those wonderful men who were destined to be fellows at Balliol. I could much more easily admire and wonder at a marvellous script from a male undergraduate. It was a terrible thing, a kind of instinct that one certainly needs to suppress. It comes from a fear of people being better than oneself. It’s also terribly easy to fall into the trap of diminishing the talents of other people’s children lest they should actually be more talented than one’s own, and again I remember consciously deciding that I would never ever do this. I resolved always to be more admiring of other people’s children than I was of my own. I think one can take that kind of decision.


Did you have any misgivings about your title coming from Mrs Thatcher?


None at all. I knew that this was something that I would greatly value. I also thought that it was rather nice that she was prepared to honour me, given that she knew perfectly well how much I disliked her.


You yourself have five children…has your own productivity, so to speak, ever been an impediment to understanding those women who took so long to conceive?


It has had the reverse effect, because I know that I would have been completely desperate if I hadn’t had children. I longed to have children, and I would have hated to be infertile.


Do you think parents have a right to parenthood, come what may, provided that medical science can provide them with the means?


No, I don’t. I’m very much against thinking they have the right. I dislike the idea of a rights-based morality rather than a morality based on what one wants and what one perhaps ought to try to achieve.


Does it ever strike you as an appalling absurdity that we seem to be more and more keen to push back the boundaries of fertility treatment and yet there is quite a lot of evidence that a great many people are simply not fit to be parents? I mean, they hit their children, they abuse them, they sometimes even kill them. Is this something we just have to accept?


One of the truly horrifying things is how badly parents treat their children, and in this country we are particularly guilty. You’ve only got to go into Waitrose or a Marks & Spencer’s to feel perfectly ashamed at the way people shout at their children and yank them around. I suspect some of the people who desperately want children may not turn out to be wonderful parents, but a lot of us are not wonderful parents and we ought to do something about it. I always admire Italians, for example, and Indians, who are on the whole extremely nice to their children, and I long for us to be like that; but we’re not.


A few years ago you chaired the Arts Council committee looking into the cost effectiveness of the Royal Opera House. You concluded that the institution was run with incredible amateurism and all the precision of a school choir. On the face of it that statement seems to lack the restraints of a reasoned approach…


That was one of the most terrible things I ever had to do. It was truly staggering what we found when we went behind the stage, and when we talked to members of the orchestra, the choir, the cleaning ladies, the people who hired the singers, the costume people – there was no communication whatsoever between any of them. For example, we came across an old man happily painting some scenery, and he had no idea that there was ever going to be a period in the foreseeable future when the house closed for repairs. He thought he would go on painting scenery for ever because nobody had told him otherwise. There was an extraordinary arrogance in the management of that place that I found almost unbelievable.


But you weren’t against the Royal Opera House on principle…


It was the way it was run. There was the attitude that it was no good putting on endless popular operas, that they had to have new operas and take risks and so on. While I have some sympathy with that I wanted there to be an acknowledgement that because of the financial difficulties the opera house might consider putting on rather more popular operas – for a short time at any rate. Although they scornfully talked about whole seasons of Mozart and Verdi, I could think of worse fates for an opera house. Birtwhistle could wait. The suggestion that you were so grand that you had to put on foreign productions that might not be terribly good, or obscure operas, or commission new ones all the time, with just a Rigoletto thrown in to pay for things, seemed to me to be terribly demeaning to Verdi. I mean, Rigoletto is a most wonderful opera and people ought to be able to see it.


Your book Imagination reveals what might be described as a less rational side of your character, a kind of belief in things beyond our knowledge or experience…do you see any conflict between this and the other more analytical, reasoned approach to life?


No, I don’t, because my approach to morality has to be based on feelings and tradition, and that romantic idea of nature being infinite and an astonishingly powerful influence is quite compatible with that. It’s also the basis of my attitude towards religion, that one’s got to be in a position to feel gratitude, humility, all those things, which are religious virtues in a way. If you’re totally non-religious then there’s no scope in your life for feeling genuinely grateful except to individual people. This idea of gratitude and thanksgiving which is central to Christianity is something which one may just spontaneously feel and can’t really live without. If occasionally, like Wordsworth, you feel part of the universe in some amazing situation, whether it’s on top of the Alps or on a lake, then three things follow: one is that you can’t express all this in rational propositions, the second is that you’re more likely to come near to the expression of it in terms of music than of words, and thirdly that you feel that the world is somehow flawed, it’s not a perfect universe, and that you’re part of its being flawed. I’m always deeply moved by the religious expression qui tollis peccata mundi – who takest away the sins of the world. The notion that there are peccata mundi which are not necessarily sins, but are natural disasters and things we can’t control, is a very important one.


What puzzles me is how can you describe yourself as a Christian without accepting the basic tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection and the life everlasting…


This is a very difficult problem, and if those are the conditions of calling oneself a Christian then I’m not a Christian. But if you take – as I do – an intrinsically historical attitude to Christianity, some things that were capable of being believed at one time are not capable of being believed at another time. A lot of the elements of Christianity that used to be essential have been quietly dropped. For example, I don’t know what people make of angels nowadays, what they’re supposed to be, but obviously they are a part of the Christian vocabulary. People reinterpret the great concepts of Christianity.


On more than one occasion you have proclaimed that human life is not sacred. You believe, for example, that parents have the right to kill a handicapped child and that people who are terminally ill might be helped to die. If human life is not sacred, are there any moral absolutes, do you think?


The moral absolute is compassion. I may have said that I thought that parents had a right to kill a handicapped child, but I feel I am on much stronger ground saying that parents have a right to abort a handicapped foetus, because I do make a difference between a child that has been born and one that has not. If somebody did plead mercy killing, for example in the case of a child who was in tremendous suffering and not likely to live, then I would want to treat that person with sympathy, but that’s certainly not what I would advocate. As for the other end of life, I think one has to treat those who do exist, and have been born, differently from human foetuses who have not yet been born; but that we need to exercise compassion when it comes to keeping people alive in awful circumstances. This is a very difficult area because one is obviously at risk of advocating putting down people who are of no productive use, and so on.


You believe more in the quality of life rather than life itself…


Yes. I also believe that we have a progressive duty to respect human beings as far as their pre-birth time goes. I mean, I regard all abortions as sad and deplorable, but less so an early abortion than a late abortion. At the other end of life you don’t get less valuable the older you get, unless the quality of your life is diminished to such an extent that you yourself are either unconscious or don’t want to go on.


You have criticized what you call lack of honesty in the medical profession among the terminally ill, the way doctors talk about easing suffering rather than helping to die. Do you accept that complete honesty is sometimes difficult to take in those situations, for the patient as well as for the relatives?


I’m glad to be able to put right what seems like an inconsistency. What I found deplorable – though funny too in its own way – was that on the House of Lords select committee the doctors were so mealy-mouthed about what they actually did. They made constant use of the double-effect argument that their intention was really to give the bloke a good night’s sleep, and that when they gave him this dose of morphine they didn’t know whether that would shorten his life or not. It seemed to me that if you followed through that argument they’d have to say they didn’t know the effect of any drug. Any use of the double-effect argument seems to me to have an implicit value judgement. What I found irritating was that the doctors wouldn’t acknowledge this. But as for general honesty and dishonesty, I’m greatly in favour of a little bit of dishonesty, concealing, if necessary, the fact that someone is dying. The patient, the patient’s family and the doctor do well to share a conspiracy of silence.


You said famously that there was little difference between killing and letting die…do you regret that remark at all?


No, I don’t, because philosophically it is perfectly correct. It’s a remark, with a different example, that Mill made when he was talking about causation. If the sentry trying to protect the castle fails to do something, fails to keep awake for example, this is just as much a cause of the fall of the castle as if he had actually let the enemy in. And if you fail to give somebody the thing that will keep him alive, let him die in other words, you have killed him just as much as if you had stuck a knife into him. To suppose there is a huge difference suggests a rather primitive notion of causation.


But surely there is a difference. For example, not jumping into a river to save someone from drowning, while it might be considered morally reprehensible, is quite different from pushing somebody into a river intending that he drown…


Well, morally, I think it’s not at all different. If you really are a strong swimmer and you know somebody is drowning and you walk by, I see no less culpability in that than if you pushed the bloke in the first place…


Yes but if you pushed the bloke in in the first place perhaps you want him to drown, but if you walk by it is an act of omission…


No, it is an act of intention. If you’re walking past and engaged in conversation and you don’t notice this wretched person drowning, OK, but if you see him and think, I might go rescue him but I shan’t, then that is an intention. You deliberately walk by and pay no attention to him.


But you’re not punished by law then…


It is morally outrageous that you are not punished; you should be. And your conscience ought certainly to plague you just as much as in the other case.


You have sometimes been criticized for the sin of supreme confidence. Oliver Cromwell famously remarked, ‘I beseech you, in the bowls of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’ Does the same thought ever occur to you?


All the time. I really don’t think I’m intellectually arrogant, however, because all my life I’ve been brought up to be a learner, a person who doesn’t know but who wants to find out, or needs to be being taught by somebody all the time. So I don’t think I would ever assume that in the sphere of philosophy I knew more or understood more than anyone else. I’ve always known myself to be a rather second-rate philosopher.


Would you say that you have become more or less certain of things as you have become older?


I am no more certain of things, but one does acquire a kind of confidence as one gets older.


Looking back, are you pleased with the way things have turned out


I’m not pleased with myself on a personal level; I’ve often behaved terribly badly and there are things that I regret. I never really set out to do anything as such. Indeed my whole life has been an incredibly matter of luck and optimism.

The Man Who Built the Best Car in the World

The purchase of my first Rolls-Royce in 1975 in odd circumstances was, I believe, my talisman for future success.

It was still an era when ostentation played a major part in the making of a business magnate, though the principle does not necessarily hold true today.

That in itself does not deflect from the fact that Rolls-Royce still make the best cars in the world, which are the dream of many a car enthusiast who happens to afford the luxury of owning one.

Brian Sewell’s last book before his untimely death is The Man Who Built the Best Car in the World, beautifully illustrated by Stefan Marjoram and written in such a way as to appeal to children as well as adults.

Quartet has released the book early, a month before its official publication date, to pay tribute to Brian who will also be remembered as a great car lover.



…sans Everything

Does individual thinking come with age?

In most cases it does but not always to the good. We often become bigoted instead of adopting a more liberal viewpoint, as we see events through a clouded tunnel vision that blurs and distorts the lucidity of clear thought.

On the other hand, our experience of long life makes us less vulnerable to the vagaries of time and logically more endowed with the kind of wisdom that longevity of life bestows on us.

In general, all young people are alike, to garble Tolstoy’s axiom, but each person is old in his or her own way.

Scientists have found that the young respond to the world in a much more uniform way than their elders. Psychologists at the University of Cambridge put 218 volunteers, aged between 18 and 88, in FMRI scanners and monitored their brain activity as they watched a condensed version of a short Alfred Hitchcock film, Bang! You’re Dead. The 1961 feature about a young boy who runs amok with his uncle’s gun was chosen for its eye-catching suspense and emotional appeal.

The scientists noted that the younger participants’ brains all tended to light up in the same way, with markedly similar responses in areas linked to the conscious control of attention.

Older people tended to have more distinctive patterns of brain activity, suggesting that they were paying less heed to the plotting and following their own trains of thought.

‘These findings suggest as we age, our experience of the world becomes increasingly individualistic, differing not only from those who differ from us in age, but also from our age-matched peers,’ the researchers wrote in the journal, New Neurobiology of Ageing. ‘This mental meandering might make older people more reactive in some situations,’ wrote Karen Campbell, who led the research. ‘Older adults attended to more irrelevant information which helped them pick up subtle visual cues missed by younger people.’

Old age, as we know it, has the following advantages: the rich experience of longevity, the wisdom that emerges from having lived an active and variant life, and the memories of times past when calamity and fulfilment play an integral part in our destiny.

But all this is dependent on one’s environment and to a larger degree on our state of health – free of the dreaded degeneration of our mental capacity.

My Very Early Days of Publishing

In late 1975 George Hutchinson, my first English friend of note, arrived at my office in Wellington Court, Knightsbridge with a proposition.

He wanted me to accompany him to Pakistan, having received an invitation to visit the country from President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through his secretary of information Nassim Ahmed. Some years before, Mr Ahmed had been a political correspondent for a Pakistani newspaper reporting on the British House of Commons at the same time as George was fulfilling a similar role for the Evening Standard. It was a trip George very much wanted to undertake, but his fear of flying held him back. If I agreed to travel with him, he said, it would go a long way towards helping him overcome his phobia, adding that there would be no problem with securing an additional invitation for me.

It was a proposal hard to turn down. Two weeks later the journey began. We were accorded full VIP treatment and taken on a grand tour of the country as far up the Khyber Pass as the Afghan border. We met President Bhutto twice and were impressed by the breadth of his intellect and his shrewd analysis of world affairs. He dressed immaculately and oozed charm. His presidential environment was as finely tuned as his wardrobe, with opulence much in evidence wherever he went.

A banquet was held in our honour to mark the occasion, and as his feted guests we enjoyed every aspect of his generous hospitality. Bhutto was without doubt a man of outstanding charisma. I soon warmed to him as formalities were pushed gently aside and a natural rapport seemed to develop between us.

A few weeks after my return to London I was pleasantly surprised to receive a telephone call from Bhutto. He spoke about a manuscript he had just completed which summed up his political philosophy, and he said he would like to see it appear in book form. Would I be prepared to pass it on to Quartet Books?

Overwhelmed by his telephone call, I said of course I would. Bhutto then added that his friend, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, later Lord Dacre, had encouraged him to take that route and would be willing to help if needed.

The manuscript arrived by way of the diplomatic bag. I read it closely, and it seemed worth publishing for two specific reasons, even though it might have a limited appeal in the United Kingdom. First, the sale of the book in Pakistan would be substantial – the Pakistani authorities would ensure it. They would distribute copies to visiting heads of state and other notables, which would have a knock-on effect in promoting Quartet Books. Second, it would give the imprint a foothold in a country whose cultured elite would recognise the list as being both trendy and readable. In the wake of The Arab Experience, The Last Corner of Arabia and the book on Ras al-Khaimeh, the Bhutto book fell into place and was published in January 1977 under the title The Third World: New Directions.

A few months later I returned to Pakistan with Michael Deakin of Yorkshire Television. We were again the guests of President Bhutto, who, having heard of my association with David Frost, wished to sound me out on the possibility of an interview to be conducted by David and produced for television by Paradine Co-Productions Ltd., our joint company. David was then at the zenith of his career and an interview with him was likely to be given international coverage. Michael, who had to his credit the hugely successful trilogy on Japan and the Arab world, came along as both adviser and friend.

We flew to Karachi and were taken on a tour of Pakistan that included such highlights as lunch with the Khyber Rifles in their mess, with all the regimental silver on display, and an excursion to Lahore to visit the famous Red Mosque. As soon as I was back in London the filming arrangements were put in place. A camera and sound crew were dispatched to Pakistan, with David Frost in his customary role of interviewer and John Birt, the future director-general of the BBC, heading the outfit as producer.

The programme had been completed as planned without a hiccup when the unfortunate fact emerged that not a single network would be willing to show it. Their grounds for turning it down were that because the finance for it came from the Pakistani government it would look suspiciously like a promotional exercise. Barely two years later, Bhutto was unceremoniously deposed by a coup led by the army chief of staff he had himself appointed, General Zia ul-Haq, and suffered the indignity of being incarcerated like a common criminal in the worst possible conditions.

He was accused of having conspired to murder one of his political opponents by an ambush in which the opponent’s father died. Many commentators insisted that the charge was a frame-up and remained convinced that after his trial his eventual execution by hanging was a shameful and cruel act of expediency and revenge.

Bhutto had been in many ways ahead of his time, and I felt sure that at his death Pakistan lost a leader of exceptional ability and flair. There can be no limits to the savagery meted out to fallen leaders in the often dirty game of politics. In 1980, a year after Bhutto’s judicial murder, Quartet reissued The Third World with a foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Trevor-Roper was clear in his opinion that Bhutto, the first civilian to rule Pakistan, had been in his day ‘the ablest statesman in Asia’ next to Chou En-lai, but that he had also harboured ‘vast ambition, acute personal sensitivity, great pride, even vanity’, and herein lay the seeds of his downfall. ‘My vision,’ Bhutto had stated, ‘is that of a Pakistan whose social standards are comparable with
those in parts of Europe. This means a war against illiteracy and ignorance. It means fighting prejudice and obscurantism. It involves the equality of men and women.’

Better education, better health, a better environment and the restoration of human dignity were all part of his programme. He founded the instantly popular Pakistan People’s Party to realise these goals and foster his concept of a ‘middle way’, called bilateralism, for the unaligned nations, to enable them to work towards economic independence in the context of world trade and development.

Professor Trevor-Roper saw Bhutto as a tragic figure in the classical sense, brought down by hubris, and his death as a disaster for his country, which, after his repudiation, ‘stood in greater need than ever of his political ability’.

From the moment of General Zia’s usurpation, it was clear that the new regime would never take root as long as Bhutto was alive. If elections were held, the People’s Party would undoubtedly win them, for Bhutto was still the hero of the people. If elections were not held, Bhutto would be a formidable opponent who would never leave the usurper in peace.

Therein lay the reasons for his death. The spirit of the martyrs may live on, commented Trevor-Roper, but unfortunately ‘the intelligence . . . is buried with their bones’.

My Dear Friend Brian Sewell

Brian Sewell is dead. He died on Saturday at the age of eighty-four at his home in Wimbledon, surrounded by his beloved dogs who kept vigil for a master they worshipped.

I realised that I shall never see him again, nor hear his imperial voice on the telephone – a voice with a melodic accent that brightened my day whenever I felt overcome by the vagaries of time.

As a consequence, I am much too distraught to write a proper tribute to the man who for the past four years has become my close friend and, I dare say, my most esteemed and controversial author.

His brilliance as a journalist, art critic and writer whose style and command of the English language stands supreme and, perhaps, with few equals; his use of words like musical notes, so well constructed as to make reading a symphonic pleasure. On a personal level, I found him a most loyal and supportive friend who never wavered in a crisis and kept his cool when the going was hampered by unforeseen circumstances.

He had courage and determination, even when his illness made him much too weak to do the things he desperately felt needed to be done. He nevertheless fought to the very end, to face death with the dignity of a fearless man who will be remembered in iconic terms – not only as a giant in his own field of art criticism but as a man who made his mark in whatever medium he chose to embrace.

His legacy is found in his books that, I am sure, will remain the best tribute to a remarkable journalistic virtuoso who himself will live in our memory for as long as art constitutes an important part of our lives.

I shall miss him terribly but take great comfort from having been his publisher and his friend. May the heavens open the gates to welcome him with open arms, for his terrestrial contributions have been phenomenal.

Is Smartness Compensation for Old Age?

As people are living longer, they amass a great deal of information and gain an unprecedented wealth of experience which makes them cleverer than ever before, scientists have found.

But while today’s over-fifties may be the brightest in history, their health hasn’t improved. In fact, according to the latest studies it has got worse.

Researchers believe an increase in the use of technology, more intellectually demanding jobs and additional education have kept older brains more alert and consequently sharper. However, less physically fatiguing jobs and lazier lifestyles are also making our muscles whither faster and waistlines grow flabbier during the process of ageing.

In two studies on Britons and Germans, aged between fifty and ninety, researchers tested participants’ brains in 2006 and again in 2012. They discovered cognitive test scores increase significantly within the six-year period for men and women of all ages.

Valeria Bordone, of the Austrian-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis who conducted the studies, said: ‘On average, test scores of people aged fifty-plus today correspond to test scores from people four to eight years younger, and tested six years earlier.’

Previous studies have also shown that IQ increases with age. The German study, in the Journal PLOS One, also assessed participants’ physical health with a questionnaire about bodily pain, general health perceptions, energy and vitality. It found physical functioning and mental health declined over the six years across all ages, but men were more adversely affected than women. The steepest decline was seen between the ages of fifty and sixty-four, especially with men who had lower levels of education.

Researcher Nadia Steiber said: ‘Modern lifestyles are boosting brains but weakening bodies,’ adding, ‘life has become cognitively more demanding, with increasing use of communication and information technology… and people working longer in intellectually demanding jobs. At the same time, we are seeing a decline in physical activity and rising obesity.’

Well, talking from personal experience, I can vouch that lack of physical activity is perhaps the most daunting subject to overcome. Sitting at one’s desk for hours on end, totally absorbed intellectually, and ending one’s day watching television in the evening to keep up with what’s going on in the world, are not conducive to maintaining physical fitness, especially in advanced age.

A little exercise is vital, so as to keep a remotely acceptable balance to fend off the dreaded ill health. However, what I lack in exercise I compensate in retiring to bed three hours before midnight. This has kept me in reasonably good nick and ensured my sanity. Am I possibly blinkered?

The Myth of Perfection

Is perfection possible?

I tend to think that to achieve it is like infinity which has no measuring device. Therefore the use of the word ‘perfection’ is simply meant to describe extraordinary efforts which enable us to produce work of high quality and precision, as judged by our peers.

Apparently, a new study shows that trying too hard will get you nowhere or, at least, not as far as you think. Employees who put pressure on themselves in the workplace as they pursue perfection are being driven to extreme stress and burnout.

Perfectionism, a personality trait that features excessively high personal standards coupled with harsh self-criticism, is usually associated with virtue, high achievement and being conscientious. The reality, say researchers, is that perfectionists are more likely to find themselves on a dangerous path.

A study, published recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, is the first to assess the full effect of perfectionism. Far from giving its adherents the competitiveness, it is largely destructive and can lead to poorer performance at work, according to researchers from York St John University and the University of Bath.

They also found that the trait was closely associated with burnout – a syndrome associated with chronic stress that manifests as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishments and eventual detachment. The link is particularly strong in employment settings with perfectionist tendencies exasperated when poor performance carries significant costs.

Andrew Hill, associate professor and Head of Taught Postgraduate Programmes at York St John University, was lead author of the review. ‘Rather than being more productive, perfectionists are likely to find the workplace quite difficult and stressful,’ he said. ‘Our research suggests that if perfectionists are unable to cope with the demands and uncertainties in the workplace, they will experience a range of emotional difficulties.’

According to Thomas Curran, a lecturer in sport psychology at the University of Bath: ‘As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a sign of virtue or high achievements yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait. Instead, diligence, flexibility and perseverance are far better qualities.’

The researchers also say that such methods, as well as greater focus on a balanced working-life, depressurised working environments and a greater acceptance of failure, could help to mitigate the negative effects associated with perfectionism.

As I said at the outset, perfectionism is partly a myth, but those who seek it are so stressed that they become obsessively boring without realising it, and their quality of life deteriorates to such an extent that they are no longer able to enjoy any achievements that their lives attain.