From time to time I come across something I’ve written ages ago which I believe those who read my blog may find rather amusing.
Tidying my desk last week, I unearthed a diary piece that I contributed to the New Statesman in August 1998, which seems worth recalling.
If I’m wrong then my hunch would have been misconceived on this occasion. Fingers crossed, here’s how it runs.
This is the season of shifts and fellow rootlessness. The government reshuffle is only the tip of the iceberg. Julian Critchley, who retired at the last election, told me there is nothing as ex as an ex-MP, but he does not yet know what it is like to be an out-of-work journalist. Like Derek Draper, I too have been sacked as a columnist on the Express. What did I do to deserve this fate?
There was no danger to democracy, I did not make exaggerated claims, I certainly did not send copy to be vetted by Peter Mandelson’s office. Indeed, for nearly 18 months, the editor Richard Addis, a good and wise man who once trained for the priesthood, allowed me free rein to indulge my passion for women. When he was sacked, it was only a matter of time before I became a victim of the battle-axe as well. It is a postmodern irony that my weekly column celebrating women should have been rejected by Rosie Boycott, once a woman herself before she gave up drugs and became addicted to political correctness. But the road from Spare Rib to the House of Lords is inscrutable and paved with acts of ruthlessness. That Boy George has been retained as an Express columnist is the cruellest cut of all. I am considering cross-dressing and maquillage to improve my employment prospects.
Fortunately I am blessed with a highly developed sense of the absurd, a condition sometimes found in those who are not, nor can ever be, establishment figures. Albert Camus, himself an outsider, battled his whole life with cosmic meaninglessness, eventually finding refuge in the absurd, which he saw as “the fundamental idea and the first truth”. I have learned to be wary of the business of truth, but the absurd seems to have as much claim as anything else. This is an odd position for a Roman Catholic, perhaps, but it is no longer enough to have faith. The Vatican now employs special investigators to check out the authenticity of miracles once regarded as divine. Even the devout Cherie Blair has taken to wearing a crystal pendant.
My boyhood ambition to be a journalist was thwarted by events in Palestine, prior to the formation of the state of Israel. My parents thought the dangers were too great and they were almost certainly right. But publishing has its own dangers.
In the late seventies I published a number of books putting the Palestinian point of view. Roald Dahl heaped praise on God Cried, which recounted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Afterwards he used to say that his controversial review had prevented him getting his knighthood. Meanwhile George Weidenfeld would whisper to dinner guests that I was an active member of the PLO. I don’t think he believes it now, but from force of habit I still drop flat to the pavement every time a car backfires.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Thus spake Chilo, one of the seven sages, in the 6th century BC. This exhortation to speak kindly of the dead or not at all has never struck me as particularly wise; more of a license for cant and hypocrisy. In the part of the world where I grew up, the dead are not falsely revered; their warts live on after them. Since most of my subjects in the Oldie are unusually well past their allotted time-span, some have since departed this world and are presumably now talking to that great interviewer in the sky. I like to remember them for their foibles as much as their good points. A L Rowse divided people into two groups – those “complacent in their ignorance” and those “complacent in their mediocrity”. Having told me his sexual proclivities were private, he fondled my thigh throughout our brief encounter.
Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the ultra-orthodox Catholic society priest who resided, till his death this year, at the Travellers’ Club, was for decades a chaplain at Cambridge. When I interviewed him he emerged as a woman-hater extraordinaire, nostalgic for the days when universities and other institutions were male preserves. He considered his view “wholly incompatible” with the God-given idea that women are not the equal of men. We must hope for Gilbey’s sake that God is not a woman.
It has been a constant fascination to me how many people turn out to be completely different from their public image. Conor Cruise O’Brien, who has a reputation for benevolent liberalism, revealed himself as an old reactionary. And the saintly, pacific Sir Laurens van der Post turned out to be quite jingoistic. He was also ungracious about Nelson Mandela, could not bear to be criticised and had an unedifying tantrum during the interview. The great and the good, just like the rest of us, can be perfectly ridiculous. My favourite eye-opener was Lord Goodman, a giant among men. After vetting me over breakfast – a sumptuous affair – he agreed to appear in my book Singular Encounters, which was to include several other ennobled celebrities. But about a month after the interview he withdrew permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams was to appear in the same volume.
“It is inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to withhold the fact that Mr Ingrams was to be included in the book,” he wrote. A staggering example of pomposity.
Interviewing can also be perilous. I was shown the door by feminist icon Betty Friedan and bawled out by Patricia Highsmith, mistress of the psychological murder. Auberon Waugh said that my strength as an interviewer lay in my unshockability. It is true that I seldom feel shocked, but I do occasionally raise an eyebrow. Sir Kenneth Dover, distinguished Greek scholar and Chancellor of St Andrews University, told how he was so struck by the beauty on top of a hill south of Mignano that he sat down on a log and masturbated.