Reading about Artemis Cooper’s new biography of the English novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, reminded me of when I interviewed her for the Oldie in the autumn of 1993. She was even kind enough to acknowledge my sending her a copy of the anthology of my interviews, More of a Certain Age, which Quartet published the same year. Her card was a delight to receive: ‘It is full of people,’ she wrote, ‘whom I want to read about, not least because I thought Mr Attallah the best interviewer I’ve ever had.’
According to the article in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, her sexual appetite was as powerful as those of Kingsley Amis, perhaps her most notorious relationship. I always suspected she had been slightly guarded with me during my interview when it ventured into certain sexual matters and the new biography would seem to confirm my suspicions.
You can read my interview here in full.
The one thing I know about your childhood is that you had a terribly difficult relationship with your mother. Looking back, is that the feature which stands out most in your mind?
I’m interested that you know that. It has taken me nearly all my life to get over it. I feel I am over it now but it was a long business. She just didn’t like me very much. I always wanted her to of course, and that makes a difference to how you approach other relationships.
Did you ever discover why she disliked you?
A year before me she had a daughter who died, and I suspect that she simply didn’t want to have another baby so quickly. She also preferred boys. She adored my brothers, both younger than me, and it was very clear to me that she did. I just came at a bad time and I was the wrong sex. Later on she became very jealous of my combining marriage with a career. She had been a very gifted dancer and she had given up on her career when she married, partly because my father’s family insisted on it, and partly because she recognized in those days that’s what you had to do. She was a very intelligent, gifted lady who just didn’t have enough to do. Women of her generation were allowed to do charity work, or they could tell their servants what to do, but they really didn’t have enough to occupy their minds. She was bored and frustrated and although she felt it was all right for the boys to do anything, it was not all right for girls. She resented the fact that I was apparently able to do things which she couldn’t.
Do you believe that such a crushing early experience sets the pattern for adult life?
It did for a long time. I have had to do an awful lot of therapeutic work on myself to come out on the other side of it, it made an enormous difference to my early life and gave me a very bad role model for my own parenting. It was also the case that for a long time in all my novels the mothers behaved very badly – that was my way of getting my own back a bit.
Your mother had also been her own parent’s least favourite child, which would suggest that we perpetrate unhappy experiences and visit them on our own children. Do you think that this process is one which can be reversed, or is the genetic imprinting too deep?
I don’t think that it’s genetic; it’s psychological, and those chains of misfortune can always be reversed provided the last link of the chain, as it were, wants it enough. For example, my daughter is a very good parent even though I wasn’t, so she’s broken that link. I also think I managed not to perpetrate on to her the feelings that my mother made me have, but that’s taken an enormous amount of work. And it is not the norm. Nearly all abusers have been abused; cruelty is what they know. It is also a kind of attention, sometimes it is the only kind of attention a child has had, so it will be cruel in its turn as a form of attention-seeking. Often when children are victims, they become persecutor, or they may become addicted to being victims, in which case they’ll find somebody who’ll beat them up. It is quite usual for women whose fathers beat them up to find husbands who do the same. There is something similar going on when fathers talk about their public-school experience and say how frightful it was, and then send their sons to the same school. They’ve had an awful time, so their sons must have an awful time. They see nothing wrong with that.
Your parents did not have a very happy marriage…how aware of this were you at the time, and what effect did it have?
I was aware of it from the age of eleven or twelve. My brothers were away at school, but I lived at home, so I was acutely aware of the tensions between my parents. I spent such a lot of time observing grown-up behaviour, and although I didn’t always understand precisely what was going on, the feeling underneath was very clear. I knew my father was discontented, that he was unfaithful to my mother for years before it came out, and it was sometimes very uncomfortable. But I just thought that was how grown-up people behave.
Eventually your father left and married someone else … can you remember the effect it had on your mother, or perhaps you?
Yes, absolutely. By that time I was married myself. My mother was more angry than unhappy. She didn’t like being left alone of course, but I doubt if she was in love with him; she wanted him more because he was handsome and attractive and a good catch for her. I could never believe that her feelings for my father were sincere – I didn’t trust them at all. I came to believe that in some curious way she had not ever had an emotional life. I looked after her for the last six years of her life, and during that time she simply didn’t have any real feelings about anything. The sexual life between my parents was probably disastrous. Although my mother was not unfaithful to him she didn’t enjoy sex at all, and my father did, so she wasn’t a very satisfactory partner.
You have sometimes said that couples should not stay together for the sake of children. Did you have a different opinion when your own parents separated?
No, I didn’t. My younger brother did suffer badly, but that was because my father more or less abandoned him. The only children I know who seem to be really secure are those whose parents really are fond of each other, really do care about each other. I have known so many parents who didn’t get on and whose children knew that all their lives. Children always pick up on the atmosphere between their parents. As a child you never see the resolution; you see the quarrels starting, the tensions mounting, but the reconciliation, if there is one, takes place in the bedroom or another place, so to the child it’s all very mysterious and quite frightening.
As a child you described yourself as being ‘neurotically inclined to homesickness’. Where did this feeling spring from, do you think?
It must have come from some kind of insecurity. It absolutely blighted me childhood. By the time I was fourteen I could just about manage to stay with my best friend and her parents for a weekend; I dreaded it but I steeled myself to do it. I suppose I felt I didn’t know what would happen if I wasn’t in my own place. And I didn’t have enough friends.
When did you finally get free of you mother?
Oh I think about two years ago probably, long after she died. I had an awful lot of therapy. I had to find out how it was possible to have been so disliked by her so that it affected everything else about my life. This meant also trying to see it from her point of view, seeing that she had a rotten life. But essentially I had to disinfect the rest of my life from not having been liked by her, and I think I have managed to do that now.
You were educated by a governess. Did you ever feel the lack of a more formal education?
Yes, I still do. It’s resulted in me knowing certain things that people who have been to school don’t know, but not knowing a very great deal that people who have been to school and university know. I would have liked to have gone to university, but my parents, that generation, simply didn’t consider the possibility. Educating a girl was not considered a very serious matter. My mind is very armature and erratic. I probably had quite a good mind which could have been sharpened by a better education. As a child I read an awful lot, of which I understood only about a third. I would have liked to develop the discipline for work which I now have, but instead I found all kinds of excuses, like falling in love.
But you’ve done very well without it…
I haven’t done very well. I’m very uneducated. My governess was a remarkable lady; she wrote books on philosophy and mathematics and taught me Greek and Latin, but I didn’t learn enough from her. Later in my life, whenever any man fell in love with me he always made me a list of books to read. I never caught up with the lists.
Did you envy your brothers being sent away to school?
Both my brothers are younger but when the older of the two went to prep school I was absolutely distraught. When we came back from taking him, I was desperate. I spent about a year hoping I’d turn into a boy so I could join him. I couldn’t bear to sleep in the room we’d shared. We are friends now, and we know each other well because we’re old, but prep school marked the end of our relationship as children.
But before he went away, were you close?
We were very close, yes and I was extremely fond of him. We did everything together, and so it was awful when he went. When he came back in the holidays it wasn’t the same because by then he didn’t want to play with girls. That’s what happens when boys go away to school. Medieval England was much better organized: a boy was sent as a page to another castle, and educated in how to behave with women, and how to behave generally. He was taught many things by the men of the household as well, and that in many ways was a far better education. Incarcerating a whole lot of boys with no women, except possibly a matron, is madness because they don’t know how to behave, and they suffer all their lives. They feel that women are a bit of a threat, or very stupid, and they don’t know how to be friends with them.
Yours was a very middle-class upbringing, complete with chauffeur and nanny and parlour-maid and so on. Where you aware at the time of the deep class divisions in the country, or did that come only later?
I was very much aware of them, but I don’t think I understood a great deal about what they entailed – poverty, for example. The prevailing attitude was very much that servants were servants. People were not necessarily nasty to them, it was thought that they led different lives. It didn’t occur to me that nanny could be the same as my mother. Every country, it seems to me, has class distinctions, and that includes America where they go on saying they don’t have them; the distinctions are very much money oriented, but they are all the same. People are more dishonest about class distinctions now. In my day they were very straight about them. I don’t say it was a good thing, but they were, I also think a lot of working-class people’s lives are nastier now than they were when I was a child. I think they have a worse time, worse living conditions and more impoverished lives, despite the welfare state. If I had to choose between living in a high-rise flat or living in a semi-detached back-to-back with a privy at the end of the garden, give me the semi every time. At least in those days you had a street life with your friends, and you knew who your neighbours were. In the modern blocks you don’t know, you’re just frightened of them.
You were only sixteen when war broke out. One imagines that people were less politically aware then than now. To what extend did you understand the reasons for war?
Very little, I would say. I was terrified of war, partly because I had read all my father’s war books, and knew that he himself had gone to France when he was seventeen and had been quite badly gassed, but would never talk about it. He had a photograph on his dressing table of whole rows of men in baggy uniforms, and one day I asked him who they were. ‘They’re my friends,’ he said. And when I asked him where they were, he said, ‘They’re all dead except me.’ That gave me the most tremendous shock. I thought if we had another war it would be simply terrifying. When Mr Chamberlain came back from Munich with the ‘peace and honour’ stuff, I really believed it was going to be alright, and then it wasn’t at all, I imagined the whole of London would be bombed in the night, everybody would be dead, and that would be the end. People were politically naive partly because at that time this country had an innate sense of superiority, which it has quite properly lost now. There was a sort of Kipling view that Britain was always right about things, so we were bound to win. But I myself felt very frightened.
You married for the first time at the age of nineteen. Was the war a contributory factor to that young marriage, in the sense that life was very uncertain and to marry was to make some statement about the future?
Yes. If there had not been a war we almost certainly would not have married. A lot of men had an instinct to marry, to have a child, because they thought they might be killed. That was certainly the case with my husband. He was fourteen years older than I was, and his mother terribly wanted him to marry, but we didn’t have enough time together beforehand to get to know each other very well. I thought I was in love, of course, and I imagine he did too, but it’s very hard to tell now. I spent the first two years of marriage agonizing every time he went off; that was what life was like then. Every time I thought I might not see him again, and that was extremely difficult to deal with.
Your only child was born during your marriage to Peter Scott. Did you also think of yourself as being too young to be fully prepared for the experience of motherhood?
Yes, I did. I would have preferred to have become used to the idea of being married before I had a child, but he and his family were very pressing about it. I felt terribly inadequate that I didn’t know how to cope. I was extremely homesick; the first year I was married I really wanted to go home, because I wasn’t living a life that was remotely normal. I’d never stayed in a hotel in my life, and then suddenly after I was married I had to live in them all the time. They were entirely filled with men; there were no women at all, and there was nothing to do. Of course, I read an enormous amount, but I was very lonely, and if I went out everybody whistled at me, which embarrassed me terribly. There was a shortage of women in the places I stayed – at one port on the Isle of Wight there were half a million men, and not even any Wrens, so it was difficult to go out without attracting attention.
Were you never flattered by that kind of attention?
I always found it very difficult. A lot of people were attracted to me because of what I looked like, without having the slightest interest in finding out what I was like as a person. In fact I think the reason I married a second time was because I had become exhausted by people wanting to go to bed with me after just half an hour. I just couldn’t deal with it all, and I longed for ‘the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise longue’.
Were you very careful with your own daughter, to approve and love unconditionally because of your own experience?
I don’t think I was a good mother. She would say I was a very bad one, but I was vaguely frightened of her and felt I wasn’t old enough to deal with her. We get on very well now, but I think that’s very much due to her than me. She had a difficult childhood, not just because of me but because her father took very little interest. He was profoundly interested in all other forms of natural life, but people no. It was difficult to be closely associated with him, because he was absolutely indifferent to people, and that included his children.
Your first marriage lasted five years, and then you were on your own for twelve years. That is a long time for a young woman not to love or be loved. How did you cope?
Well, I had lovers in that time, and people asked me to marry them, but I didn’t think any of them was the right person. I regard that period of my life as a very wasted time, although when I think of the people I didn’t marry I’m always grateful that I didn’t. I did fall in love with people, but for a long time after my first marriage I didn’t ever want to get married again. Then I suddenly felt I did want to, and I wanted children. I married a man who was not right at all, and who didn’t want to have children. That lasted five years, but it was a disaster; we were hardly ever together.
Can you recall why you married him in the first place?
I married him because – and this is all to do with being very insecure – he was charming, he was clever, and he was a con man. People always asked me why I didn’t see through him, but you don’t see through con men until it’s too late. I realized he didn’t love me very shortly after we got married, and that was a terrible shock, because I still had the romantic notion that people didn’t tell lies about love (or writing – the two things I minded about). He had married me because he thought I had some money – I had a bestseller that year – and also because he thought I had connections which would get him a job. But I don’t think it was just me. I doubt if he was capable of loving anyone properly.
The marriage was a loveless liaison…you have said that your husband did not even make love to you. What effect did that have – did it lower your self-esteem, or did it simply make you determined to get out, or both?
It lowered my self-esteem; lowering my self-esteem was one of the things he was good at. I’m not sure how much I want you to write about him because I try absolutely not to mention him. He still goes about saying he used to be married to me. He enjoys all that, and I feel all I can do is keep reference to him to the barest minimum. I prefer to draw a veil over it all. It was a great mistake on my part not to have seen through him, but if you have lowered self-esteem you’re not very good at that; you’re rather grateful for attention.
You were undoubtedly very happy for a while with Kingsley Amis …presumably it was very important and reassuring that happiness was indeed attainable after your early experiences…
Yes. One of the things about Kingsley that I found most deeply attractive was that he could make me laugh so much. It’s one of the most turning-on things that there is, and he was immensely funny.
When the marriage ended, was it also very important to know that there had been happy years? Was that something you tried not to lose sight of?
I do remember the happy times, and with gratitude. We had very bad luck really. One lives in the slipstream of one’s own experience, and I would know now much more how to deal with a middle-aged marriage than I did then. We needed privacy, but we didn’t have it. We had the stepchildren living with us, and they were very hostile. We managed very well to begin with because we had long holidays abroad together. We used to go to Greece a great deal, and we our grown-up time alone, but then he stopped wanting to go abroad because he was a very anxious person and didn’t like travelling. Then we were not alone, and I don’t think any serious relationship survives without time alone; you absolutely have to have it. Even friendship requires it – you can’t develop friendships with people if you never see them alone.
Some people who knew Kingsley well suggest that deep inside he doesn’t like women.
No, that why I had to leave. You can live with somebody who doesn’t love you, but you can’t possibly live with somebody who actually doesn’t like you. That became palpable. He simply doesn’t like women. He turns them into his mother, and he’s frightened of them.
That third marriage was hailed as the perfect literary partnership. Was the pressure of this perfection one of the factors which contributed to the failure?
We were both used to a certain amount of publicity, so I don’t really think that made a difference. I doubt if Kingsley knew any more than I did about the pitfalls of middle-aged marriage.
Would you say you understood him?
I understood a lot about him, but he is a very complicated person. It’s difficult to say that one understands somebody completely. I was always aware that he had a very high level of anxiety, something which poets often have. In fact, I’ve never known a poet without it. It takes different forms, but generally they are afraid of death, afraid of accidents, of terrible things happening to them, of losing people they love. They seem to be menaced more by possibilities than actualities. Kingsley had these areas of uncertainty, and he needed bolstering up too, and we simply didn’t do it for each other.
Although you haven’t seen Kingsley Amis since you left, you have said you would like to be friends. Do you see that as a possibility one day?
No, I don’t now, and I’m not even sure I feel that any longer. I think it would be hopeless.
In 1978 you published a collection of fragments about love entitled The Pleasures, Joys and Anguish of Loving. Do you think these emotions are distributed fairly evenly in the business of loving, or is there generally a surfeit of anguish?
People probably do have more anguish and suffering than ecstasy or contentment. You have to be rather an artist to get the good things out of loving, because the traps and pitfalls and the miseries are there for everybody. I am no exception. I’ve loved people and I’ve been happy with them, but I’ve also been very miserable about them.
Do you ever feel lonely?
Oh yes, often. If you live alone, it happens. I don’t particularly like living on my own, but I’m getting much better at it. I have friends of all ages, and people come to stay here a lot, but I do spend days and days on my own. The times when one is happy are when one lives in the present, and that’s something I’m trying to learn to do more. There are whole patches of my life I can’t remember at all, because I was either thirsting after the past or anxious about the future. I would have liked very much to have ended my life married to somebody whom I’d known a very long time. That would have been marvellous, but I’ve made a mess of it, so that’s what I don’t get. You always pay for everything.
You were widely thought to be one of the most articulate analysts of family relationships in contemporary fiction. Do you think you have paid dearly in personal terms to arrive at that position?
I don’t think I’ve paid unduly, but you do always pay. You may not pay at once, and you may not pay all at once, but you always pay. I paid very heavily for marrying a con man, for marrying so you and having a child when I didn’t feel old enough. That’s something between me and my own actions; it’s nothing to do with somebody being horrible to me, or being against me. I very much don’t agree with or believe in people like Cyril Connolly and his passion for guilt, which became a great fashion after the war and which somehow absolved you from any kind of future behaviour. You’re never going to wipe out what you’ve done wrong , but you can at least not continue it. I do believe in change.
Do you think you have changed?
I’ve changed an enormous amount. A lot of people do change; the people who don’t are the people who don’t really want to, those of the fly-in-amber syndrome. While you’re alive you’re moving, and relationships move and they change, and if you’re not prepared to move with them, there can be awful trouble. I think people who set themselves against change are fairly unhappy people.
How important do you regard sex in the scheme of things?
Like friendship or amusement or pleasure, sex is a facet of relationships. It is one of the most important elements, but of course it has been deeply misused. People who are absolutely ruled by their sexual interests and requirements do tend to repeat themselves. You have the choice between doing the same thing with a lot of different people or different things with the same person. And I would rather do different things with the same person, because you find out the other factors of intimacy, and intimacy is a very important and valuable life force. I remember meeting a man three years ago who told me he’d been to bed with eight hundred women that year. I don’t know whether that was a boast or whether he was just being silly, but he couldn’t possibly have known any of them, and that seems to me rather depressing. He had no concept of intimacy at all. I can honestly say I’ve had very little unalloyed happy sex in my life, although there was one incident that really was like that for me, and it’s been very warming, very lasting, and I remember it with great pleasure and gratitude.
Family-saga books have generally been received with some contempt on the review pages of the serious press, but your Cazalet chronicles have demanded that we re-examine our prejudices. Has that given you particular satisfaction?
It’s given me great pleasure to be taken seriously on my own. It’s always satisfying if your peers like your books, particularly those writers whom you admire. I don’t think the subject matter matters a damn; it’s how you do it. There are no new ideas in the world after all, and if a painter chooses to paint frying pans from morning till night, and he does it very well, he’s probably just as interesting as somebody who is painting the Resurrection all the time. One can write about a family saga in a hundred different ways.
I have the impression you are rather contemptuous of the literary world, the world of Booker Prizes and incestuous reviewing, am I right?
I’m not contemptuous of it. I just feel, particularly with novel reviewing, that it is rather male-dominated and that there is a certain amount of back-scratching. I’m not against literary prizes or anything which draws attention to literature in this country. Writers are underrated here, unlike in France, for example. Englishmen are the only people in the world who boast that they never read novels – they actually boast about it! You’d never get a Frenchman saying that. The cab drivers in Paris all know who Camus was.
I read somewhere that you wanted very much to have children with Kingsley Amis. Was it a terrible disappointment that the marriage was childless?
It certainly was a disappointment, yes.
You worked very hard in your role as a stepmother. Were there rewards for doing that?
Well Martin goes on saying that I helped him; he’s very gracious about that in public and usually says that if it hadn’t been for me he wouldn’t have got to Oxford. That is true, but it’s very nice that he says so, and that’s a reward. I don’t think there were any rewards apart from that.
Are you still close to your stepchildren?
I don’t see any of them…at all…
Not even Martin?
I haven’t seen Martin for three years. I used to ring him up, make an effort to see him, in the end I said, ‘Look, you know I really love seeing you and I would love to see you regularly, but this time I’m going to leave it to you to ring me.’ He never has.
Women traditionally hang on to marriages, even dead marriages, trying to shore them up. Women are also traditionally the ones who are rejected, abandoned by their husbands. You have walked out of three marriages, which is a striking role reversal. What gave you the courage to do this?
I don’t believe in staying with people if you really don’t feel good about it. I haven’t taken money from any of my husbands; I want to make that clear. I just went each time and started afresh on my own. With Kingsley it was a case of not feeling able to stay with someone who disliked me. With Peter I was much younger and I knew he wanted a kind of life that I simply wouldn’t be able to fit into. We remained friends over the rest of our lives – he died about two years ago – and we were quite amiable always. There was never great acrimony, never anything bad. It took a lot of courage to leave Kingsley because of my age in a way, and because of starting again. I went and stayed with an incredibly kind friend, and in the first six months I think I earned only a hundred pounds.
You have never filed for huge divorce settlements. Has this been a point of honour with you?
It’s a point of principle, I think. I don’t approve of women living on men. If you are healthy and able, it’s up to you to cope with your life. I must make it clear that when I left Kingsley, although I didn’t take any alimony, I did eventually get half the price of the house in which we lived together, but we bought our houses with my money to start with. On the first occasion I didn’t take any of the house because Peter had bought it all. I didn’t have any money when I married, so I had to start again from scratch. When I left my second husband he didn’t have any money anyway, so I just stopped having to pay for things, which was very nice. If the circumstances had been different, if for example Kingsley had left me at the age of fifty-six or whatever, and I had had five of his children, and I’d brought them all up and I hadn’t been able to do another job as a result, then I think it would have been fair to take alimony. I don’t want to judge other people, but in my case it hasn’t happened to be right to do it.
How do you stand on feminism?
I think it has a very long way to go. One of the things we are constantly being told by men is that things have become fair for women, but I don’t think they have yet. Some things have changed, of course. For example when I left Peter I could not get a mortgage on any house because I was a woman, quite simply, and nobody would have considered it. Politics probably suffers from a tremendous lack of women. No provision is made for a woman to be a wife and mother as well as a cabinet minister. Men don’t have to choose between being Prime Minister or being fathers and husbands; it doesn’t come into it for a moment.
Mrs Thatcher was the exception to the rule, I suppose…
Mrs Thatcher didn’t really get into a very powerful position until her children were practically grown up, and she was married to quite a rich man, so she didn’t have the pressures which an awful lot of women have.
But did you admire her as a woman?
Not as a woman. I admired her as a leader because although I didn’t agree with her she did seem to me to stick to her guns, and people who keep sidestepping the whole time are very depressing. I don’t think she cared very much about whether people liked her or not, and one of the great dangers of leaders today is that they mind far too much about that. It makes them unable to stick to things or have a clear line about what they regard as right or wrong. I didn’t find Mrs Thatcher at all easy as a person; she’s a woman who doesn’t like women, and they are the only women I find hard to get on with.
Do you feel now that you have more in common with women than with men?
Yes, but that is maybe because I spend more time with them. It’s true that I do have far more women friends, but partly that is because when you get to my age you know a lot of widows, inevitably.
Do you still aspire to having a great love affair?
I don’t aspire to it, but I certainly would not spurn it. If it came along, I would say, how wonderful, and I would recognize it now. I think it extremely unlikely, but I am not against it in principle.
I have the impression that principles are very important to you. Have these principles been worked out according to your life experience, or did you inherit them?
I regard principles as very expensive things to have, so I think one has to be rather selective about how many one can support. I do believe in everybody having a moral structure or belief system, and that it is important to think about what that is, because if you’re not very clear about it you haven’t a hope of living it. I’m not a religious person at all, but I do believe that people are able to change things and themselves and we learn from the good examples of other people. In my life the things which have most impressed me and which have lasted for me have been other people’s behaviour in certain circumstances. That is tremendously important, and once you recognize that, you don’t want to be a bad example for others.
Isn’t it true to say that the more principled one is the more one is likely to suffer?
That’s always a hazard. One can’t possibly live one’s life on the basis of trying to avoid suffering, like avoiding being run over, but one can take reasonable precautions not to be run over. The thing about suffering is it depends whether you allow it to overwhelm you and dominate your life, or whether you allow anything else in. You might have to die for your principles, so you have to be very clear about what they are and whether you think they are worth that.
I read somewhere that your memory is now very selective and there are whole areas of unhappiness which you have simply erased. Have you found it easier to try to bury the pain rather than to try to conquer it by confronting it?
I don’t think I planned to forget anything – that’s just what has happened sometimes. It’s not so much violent happenings I’ve buried; I always remember them. It’s the long periods of depression or unhappiness which become a kind of fog. But on the whole I think confronting things is always better. If you hear a sound in the house at night and you’re frightened, it’s much better to go down and see what it is or isn’t than to stay upstairs imagining all the things it might be.
How important has psychotherapy been to you? What has it enabled you to do or understand which you couldn’t have done by yourself?
It’s made me understand the importance of listening to people, which I don’t think I understood before. People very seldom listen to each other, and as a result people don’t tell each other things in a serious enough way. I’ve learned to tell people things, and it’s cleared up a lot of unfinished business. It’s not a self-indulgence; some of it is very painful.
You said you were not religious, but do you find a similarity between that kind of thing and confession for the Catholic?
No, because it’s for quite a different purpose. When you go to confession, which I did briefly when I was an Anglican, what you’re doing is unloading a whole lot of behaviour that you’re not particularly proud of, and getting somebody to say, ‘Well that’s all right, you’ve told me now’, and it’s all washed away. That doesn’t stop you from doing it again and again and again. The point of talking about your behaviour is to sort out the bits of it that you really don’t want to go on being loaded with, and finding out why you behave like that and then, very often, when you do know, it’s easy just to stop if you want to.
With advancing years, are you likely to seek solace in religion?
I don’t think so. Faith is like love; they’re both gifts, and you can’t reason yourself into either of them. You can’t acquire them by being wise or rich or thoughtful; they are things which come to you. I don’t have faith in that sense.
Are you anxious about death?
No. Dying is the last great adventure. There are times when I feel this is the most amazing world and I can’t bear to leave it, but there are also times when I can see that I will have had a lot life and I will be prepared to let it go. I don’t know whether things happen to you after you’re dead or not; it may well be that we do have other lives, but I find it very hard to believe in the Catholic conception of heaven and hell. Our lifespan in that case has been organized by a particularly wicked fairy godmother: it’s long enough for you to learn things, and then not long enough for you to practise them. It doesn’t make sense that you should suffer unspeakable purgatory forever because you haven’t done very well in your allotted timespan.
When you look back on your life, is there anything you really regret?
I really regret not having had more children. I would have liked more children, very much, and when I reached the point of being mature, I feel I would have been good at it.
You once said: ‘Pain, like arsenic, accumulates in the body; but while it is difficult to get rid of arsenic, it is possible to get rid of pain.’ How have you got rid of your pain?
By talking about it. I think pain flourishes in solitude and silence. It was an Indian who said to me once that most people’s response to physical pain is to flinch and try to get away from it, but if you actually try to explore where it’s coming from and what exactly it feels like, you can diminish it very considerably. I have found that to be true.
What, if any, are the compensations of growing older?
That’s a very difficult one. People talk a lot of sentimental nonsense about growing old. What I think happens is that you become more of whatever it was you were. Irascible people become more sentimental. I want to be more aware of other people and what they need. I should like to be of some use in that way. At my age you haven’t got the immediate investment which you have when you are young, and quite properly selfish, when you are trying to carve out your own life. Most of my life is over and there is no longer a need for me to do that; so I might now do something for others. We all decay, and we can either be submerged in self-pity because we can’t do the things we did when we were thirty, or we can find other things to do. I have found other things to do.