Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Orwell Essays

Brian Sewell, who is no longer with us, is sorely missed by those who knew him well and had the privilege of working with him. He was a man who relished friendships while at the same time was a formidable art critic who spared no one he considered to be a charlatan or who claimed to be above his station. He admired exceptional talent and would not give credit to anyone unless it was well deserved.

Working for the Evening Standard for many decades, it was the then editor Max Hastings who gave him a general comment column to write and some of these writings eventually won him the Orwell Prize.

A selection of these essays are now published by Quartet Books in a paperback edition.


Mike Parker, in his review for the Tribune magazine, had this to say about the author, who he referred to as fogeyish but humane: ‘He often had interesting and insightful things to say about the art he liked. He was elegant, idiosyncratic often predictable, sometimes surprising and equally humane in a privileged, admittedly old fogeyish, sort of way.

‘Sewell’s subjects ranged from child labour to addiction, fishing to Zionism, even Turkey in the EU. This selection offers a pretty comprehensive portrait of the author who died in 2012.’

Apart from being his publisher and friend I urge people who haven’t secured a copy of this little gem of a book to acquaint themselves with a man who is uniquely readable and a talent of exceptional dimensions.



Saunas Might be the Answer

I have always considered sauna sessions to be a good way to cleanse the body and keep the skin glowing. But now it seems that visiting the sauna regularly has other more important benefits. It could reduce the risk of dementia, a new study has found. Scientists in Finland followed the lifestyles of more than 2,000 middle-aged men for twenty years to find out what factors influenced the development of cognitive problems in later life.

The study in Age and Ageing found that those who used the sauna between four and seven times a week were 66% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia compared to those taking a sauna once a week or less. It’s the first time a link between sauna use and dementia has been discovered, although previous studies showed regular use appears to improve heart health.

Professor Jari Laukkanen, the study leader at the University of Eastern Finland, said that sauna bathing may protect both the heart and memory in similar ways: ‘It is known that cardiovascular health affects the brain as well,’ he said. ‘The sense of wellbeing and relaxation experienced during sauna bathing may also play a role.’

Dementia charities said saunas might work by reducing blood pressure and improving circulation.

Doctor Clare Walton, research manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘With dementia now the biggest killer across England and Wales, finding ways to reduce the development of the condition is a top priority. Saunas are thought to improve circulation and reduce blood pressure, both of which could go some way in reducing your risk in getting dementia.’

Doctor Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK added: ‘Although sauna bathing isn’t a common hobby for men in the UK, this study suggests men who use saunas several times a week may also have a lower dementia risk.

‘These kinds of studies can’t unpick cause and effect but they are important for highlighting trends in how lifestyle factors may influence our risk of dementia.’

Well, having a sauna is rather pleasant in itself, but since it might also arrest the possibility of developing dementia then it is worth the effort. Like they say, nothing ventured nothing gained.


Improvise and Live Happily Ever After

Whoever has said that old age is a time to relax and reap the benefits of decades of hard work must think again and try to improvise ways and means to make it as comfortable as possible.

Soaring property prices and planning restrictions are driving growing numbers of people to live in ‘posh sheds’ at the bottom of gardens experts have said.

Campaigners for homeowners have said customers are ‘getting creative’ and saving thousands by picking larger cabins to use as permanent homes.

There was a 15% increase in mentions of log cabins on UK property listings between 2015 and 2016 according to figures from website Rightmove.

Unlike so-called ‘Granny annexes’, cabins are often deemed outbuildings and so do not usually require planning permission. Provided they are an extension of the main home and not a separate residence they are also not liable for stamp duty or council tax. Among those to become a shed dweller is self-styled ‘lady in the lodge’ Val Dawson who moved into a lodge in October last year.

The 70-year-old chose to live in a cabin which has a shower and a double bed and seating area, in her son Chris’s garden in Cheshire. ‘My son had the idea of getting me in before I needed any caring.

‘At first, being a very independent lady, I didn’t really want to sit in his garden for the rest of my days, however the more we thought about that I wouldn’t have to pay council tax it seemed to make sense,’ the grandmother of seven said.

‘I think overall it was around £50,000, so much cheaper than a house.’

Paula Higgins chief executive of the Home Owner’s Alliance said: ‘Thanks to stamp duty the cost of moving is so high that it just loses people money so instead they are being creative with their space.’

What a wonderful and resourceful idea to live in a cabin in one’s garden, save money and enjoy retirement with much lower overheads.






The Chinese are the new travellers the world over. Wherever you go you see them in large groups of tourists, scouring shops and places in search of items to purchase or notable sights to visit. As the soft dawn light rose over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the bulky shadows of ancient temples sharpened and came into focus. So did another sight: thousands of tourists lining the grass, packed together in rows, poised to be in a perfect picture. They were travellers from all over the world, but most were Chinese.


It was the Lunar New Year, a two-week holiday, celebrating the start of the Year of the Rooster, which began recently and ended last Saturday. The event always prompts a tourist boom but this year it reached new heights.

‘I came here because China is so busy over the New Year,’ said Zhang Shuyu, a Beijinger in her 30s. ‘But I found there were just as many Chinese people here the same as back home.’ The holiday is always a time of a huge internal movement that clogs China’s railways. But now, with more disposable income than ever, the Chinese are also venturing –in ever greater numbers – into other countries. They have now become the biggest outbound tourist flow in the world.

In 2016, more than 130 million Chinese visited 174 destinations – 6 million of them during the New Year holiday – for an average of just over nine days. The most common destination was Thailand, followed by South Korea and Japan. Britain was also a popular choice.

Next to the ticket queue at Angkor Wat were rooster balloons and special banners for sale, while on the plane trip over Cambodia, flight attendants wished Chinese passengers a Happy New Year. The staff at Zhanj’s Hotel laid on fireworks for the occasion. Paay, 39, a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, said there were twice as many Chinese over the Lunar New Year, but complained they took buses rather than tuk-tuks.

It is not just the famous Khymer ruins that get the tourists excited. Two groups also visited the Cambodian Killing Fields at Phnom Penh’s abandoned school turned torture camp, Tuolsleng. In Hanoi, Henry from Guangdong in southern China, who was enjoying a bowl of Pho, said he had left home on the first day of New Year to escape the crowds – only to find himself in the thick of them.
In Bangkok, shuffling around the Emerald Buddha Temple and Grand Palace, were Chinese tourists in matching baseball hats, following a guide waving a coloured flag. The guide pointed out an official building due to be visited by Daddy Xi Jing Ping, the Chinese President, on his next state trip to Thailand.

Not everyone welcomed the influx. A temple in Northern Thailand is introducing separate lavatories for Chinese tourists after groups left the existing ones in a bad way. But whatever the reputation of Chinese visitors, countries are more than happy to pocket the revenue.

More than ever, the Lunar New Year seems to going global. Western celebrities and world leaders have the habit of delivering New Year Wishes in video messages. This year’s crop including Theresa May; the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutiérrez; the IMF Director, Christine Lagarde and the prime ministers of New Zealand and Denmark. There was even an effort in faltering Mandarin from Tom Brady, the US football star. ‘There are Chinese all over the world,’ said Zhang, as the first sunbeam struck the tallest tower of Anwar Wat. ‘Wherever you go, they will be there taking photos.’

The Chinese, it is true, are everywhere. The might of China has become a phenomenon you can no longer ignore. The USA must watch out, for China’s economy is upbeat and will remain unsurpassable so long as the United States keeps squandering a large part of its wealth on waging unnecessary conflicts the world over. This is so costly and beyond comprehension.

Love Reignited in Old Age

Living apart after so many years of marriage but still being together seems to be a formula which is catching on very quickly. The Japanese have even coined a phrase to describe it: ‘graduation from marriage’. Now the phenomenon is said to be spreading to South Korea where older couples who still love each other, but want fresh adventures, opt to live apart.


With careers reaching an end and children gone, more married couples are choosing to live apart and pursue the dreams they were earlier denied in a society governed by strict Confucian values.

According to a survey by one matchmaking service in Korea, 63% of women and 54% of men like the idea of greater independence in later life, a gender divide also reflected in Japan.

The term ‘sotsukon’, which combines ‘sotsugyo’ (for ‘graduation’) and ‘kekkon’ (for ‘marriage’), was coined there in 2004 in a book by the author Yumiko Sugiyama, recommending the graduation from marriage.

In a nation with an ageing population where the longest period in a woman’s life is increasingly after her children are grown up the idea took hold. It also has celebrity endorsements. In 2013, Japanese comedian Akira Shimizu and his wife announced they would graduate marriage and produced another book, Sotsukon – A New Form of Love.

Doctor Jason Danely, senior lecturer in anthropology of Japan at Oxford Brookes University, said it was little surprise that the phenomenon was now gaining ground in Korea. ‘They’re both facing similar problems: rapidly ageing populations and issues of family and gender.’

With the advancement of medicine and the improvement of living standards, the elongation of life has become a reality which requires a different kind of outlook. Traditional ways of living give way to a less defined love life in order to reinvigorate what was once an adventure that has run out of steam. A new one is then likely to offer an extended dimension.



The Académie Française is up in arms regarding a decision by Paris to use an English slogan in its bid for the 2024 Olympics. It claims that the slogan ‘Made for Sharing’ is unpatriotic and sounds like a junk food advert.


The institution, which has been policing the French language since the 17th century, said: ‘The Académie Française unanimously express its disapproval of the decision of the committee to give priority to the English language.’ Since the foundation of the modern games in 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin, French has been the first official language of the movement, it noted. English was added later as a second one.

The Académie, which consists of forty members elected from the country’s most august thinkers, has had mixed success over centuries of fighting to keep the purity of the Gallic tongue. Its events to stem the invasion of English since the 19th century have scored some victories. It promoted new words for computer ID and software which were universally adopted – ordinateur, informative and logiciel.

To add insult to injury the organiser has chosen a trite advertising tag, the Académie argued. ‘This slogan has already been used in advertising campaigns for sweets (Quality Street, Cadbury’s snap biscuits and sliceable pizzas from the Burger King Chain,’ it said).

The bid committee defended the move before the slogan was projected on to the Eiffel Tower two weeks ago. It argued: ‘We have a slogan in English to allow us to address the world and the eighty per cent of the International Olympic Committee who speak English.’ The Committee has also launched a French version – ‘Venez Partager’ [Come and Share].

Marine le Pen, the National Front leader, denounced the slogan as ‘linguistic treason’. Three French language defence groups have started legal proceedings to force the committee to abandon a phrase that they argue constitutes ‘a serious insult to the French language’ and ‘a breach of the constitution.’ Bernard Pivot, a host of TV literary shows, called the slogan ‘an error and a stupidity.’ He said that it was probably too late to cancel it, but added: ‘I suggest that they invent a French slogan and add it on. We can have two slogans.’

I agree with the French that the slogan is unimaginative and does sound like a junk food advert, but to go as far as to call it unpatriotic is stretching the elastic of common sense to breaking point.

The Odd Couple

I always loved Lulu. She is bright, has a good voice, looks happy and invariably brought merriment wherever she happened to be. But I never knew she had a crush on David Bowie.


They seem an odd couple but as she wrote in her 2002 autobiography I Don’t Want to Fight: ‘When he focussed on me I felt like the only person in the room, in the universe. Bowie was so cool and I wasn’t but he singled me out. I found him intoxicating. It was the sexual chemistry which drew us together.’

Despite her secret affair with a man that her mother saw as an anti-Christ figure, she told a Saturday newspaper magazine this weekend that she spent her early life craving convention and normality: ‘I was programmed to think that the answer to life was a white picket fence and three children, you know, to be happy ever after and it’s unrealistic. When I was younger I was probably ruled by my emotions but now that’s not the case because I put so much work into looking at myself objectively.’

Today she still feels very flattered that Bowie singled her out. ‘A thousand billion times,’ she says. ‘I was not cool and he was, so I was unbelievably flattered.’

‘I think it influenced my life. But then I married celebrity hairdresser John Frieda.’

Lulu’s marriage to Frieda lasted 14 years until they divorced in 1992. She refuses to comment on whether she’s single at the moment but does own up to a celebrity crush on Barack Obama.

From Bowie to Barack Obama – that seems a clumsy diversion of sorts. But crushes by their very nature are not always comprehensible.

Remembering Paul Hogarth

Paul Hogarth was a painter, illustrator and draughtsman. He was born in Cumbria in 1917 and educated at Manchester College of Art and St Martin’s School of Art in London. His commitment to the radical left in the 1950s led to working trips to China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He collaborated with many writers including Doris Lessing, Brendan Behan, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, John Betjeman and Lawrence Durrell. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1984. His autobiography, which includes many reproductions of drawings and paintings, was published in 1997. He died on 27 December 2001. To mark the centenary this year of Paul Hogarth’s birth, here’s the interview he did with me for The Oldie in 1999, two years before his death.

You have led a varied and interesting life, but your autobiography tells us only the bare facts about the more personal aspects of your life. Was this a deliberate policy when you were writing it?

I actually blame it on the editor who, I understand, used to work for the Reader’s Digest, and so the more colourful episodes were wiped out. There was an attempt to make the book acceptable to the largest audience and since a lot of its personal character was as concerned with the disasters as the triumphs, this was eliminated, making it a rather colourless text, I thought.

I am curious about your father, for example. What sort of man was he, and were you close to him?

I think sons can be close to their fathers up to a certain age when they share their fathers’ interests. I remember being fairly close to mine when he taught me how to tickle trout in the streams of the Lake District, and how to find birds’ nests, but when I ceased to be interested in that sort of thing he ceased to be interested in me. He simply didn’t understand that I was developing in another way. He was a very limited man, in some ways canny, but limited all the same, and since I was a one off, relations cooled considerably by the time I was in my teen years.

What about later on in life?

Well, he never accepted the fact that I was succeeding as an artist, and he would take every opportunity to denigrate what I was doing.

Did you ever mind being an only child?

Yes. It used to make me introspective and I would certainly have liked sisters and brothers. But I think the experience of being an only child drives you in on yourself, and you become much more resourceful. I’ve always lived with myself, in myself, and it’s been an extraordinary source of strength.

You say of James Boswell, the painter: ‘If he was the father I should have had, I was the son he never had.’ You are referring, of course, to the encouragement he gave you, but is the implied criticism of your father entirely fair, do you think? After all, your father did not have the education or experience…

Oh yes, but Jim was absolutely what I would have wanted from my father. He was an educated man, not in the English way, since he was a New Zealander, but he was very democratic and understanding. He helped me enormously to develop as an artist; he told me the directions to go in, he encouraged me to study drawing and painting. In many ways he was much more than a father, but he also gave me that fatherly encouragement.

You won a scholarship to Manchester School of Art. Before the course was over your left-wing views caused such offence to your Conservative voting parents that you left home. How did they react?

They were appalled. What happened was that they thought that a scholarship would last only one year, and they kept going to the school of art and saying to the director, ‘Hasn’t he had enough yet?’ and, ‘When is he going to leave?’ and, ‘What is he going to do?’ To them study at a higher institution didn’t mean anything; they simply didn’t understand what it was leading to. On top of that they made it so difficult for me that I left home. I would be sitting in the winter by the fire reading books and my mother thought I would drive myself mad because I read too much. They didn’t realise this was a natural thing for an enquiring teenager, and I just couldn’t stand the atmosphere. Leaving home at the age of seventeen was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, but I just had to get away from that regime.

Where did you go?

I found an agreeable hostel in a very unpleasant part of Manchester where I had my own room. I met students from Manchester University and discovered vegetarian meals, and so on. It was a very happy period, but then the whole balance of my life was thrown off because I became interested in political activism. In the end this destroyed my studies, and when I look back I just wonder how the hell it happened. But I got involved with a group of artists who turned out propaganda for the unions and the Communist Party, and I found a certain camaraderie and friendship there which led me to neglect my studies.

Yes, in fact you became so involved with left-wing activities that you gave up art completely and went to Spain with the International Brigade to fight for the Republican cause. Looking back, are you proud of what you did, or do you regard it as a romantic gesture?

Looking back on it now, I was completely mad. But youthful idealism is a powerful, irresistible force. Besides, I found amongst the intellectuals in the Communist Party the affection that I didn’t have in my family life, I suppose.

You became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party which caused problems for you when war broke out and you were called up…

At that time if you had any kind of military experience, you were called up. But as we have only recently discovered, there was a spy network based on former members of the International Brigade. If you had been a communist and you’d had military training, you were very much persona non grata. After seven months I was discharged.

In 1942 you were married for the first time but you tell us almost nothing about the girl who became your wife. Was she also a communist?

No, though her brother and her mother were. Her father was dominated by his son and his wife, and it was a crazy family. My wife was a maverick character with a great sense of humour, and I very much loved her. She was a natural satirist and she would create charades based on the news. She was brilliant at mime and would make up songs about the politicians of the time. The whole family was completely mad, straight out of Frank Capra.

The marriage lasted only four years… what went wrong?

I think when artists marry young, it’s bound to be a disaster. They are developing at such a rate and although I needed someone who was non-conventional, I just got bored with the whole relationship. She couldn’t help me, you see, and I desperately needed somebody who could. She loved me, but love wasn’t enough. That’s one of life’s mysteries: you want love, and when you get it, you don’t want it.

You and Ronald Searle went to Poland in 1948 and were astounded by the extent of the destruction. At the Congress of Intellectuals for Peace, you drew luminaries ‘making fools of themselves by siding with the Soviets against the Americans’ – as you put it. Did you write that with hindsight or had disillusionment with Communism begun even then?

That’s hindsight. What I did see and what I remember feeling was that these people who were Communists had so much vanity, the same amount of vanity and ego as anybody else, and that was quite a revelation.

You speak of Searle with admiration as by far the superior craftsman, and you hoped that travel would bring out the artist in you. You say at one point: ‘Like a Christian pilgrim of old, I sought spiritual adventure.’ Can you explain what you meant by ‘spiritual’ in that context?

I tried to find things that would move me. I tried to find issues that I could draw, and dramatise, but it wasn’t until I went to Greece during the generals’ regime that I found a theme which I could interpret – the scenes of suffering outside the prisons in Athens, the political prisoners, and the lines of women carrying food parcels. Communists had done terrible things in Greece. But the generals were also very harsh and I only saw that one side. Experience of life, that’s what I was seeking, so that I could develop as an artist.

You travelled and practised your craft in Spain, France and Italy, where your Communist Party card allowed you to stay in the many Houses of Culture. What was that like?

That was principally an Italian experience. The Italian Communist Party was different from any other Communist Party, having much of their intelligentsia in its ranks. They opened these palaces in places like Siena and Florence, Verona and Pisa, indeed throughout Italy, and to stay there made me feel that in being a Communist you could embrace culture. There were always art exhibitions and you could talk to artists of your own age.

Post-war London under a Labour government, in your opinion, wallowed in an afterglow of misplaced optimism. What did you mean by that?

I meant that nothing changed, and yet there was all this talk about a new Jerusalem. Capitalism flourished, and it didn’t seem to me to be any different. The Labour Party didn’t seem to make any headway.

But you have changed your mind about capitalism since?

Oh yes. Some kinds of capitalism are unacceptable, but I think private capitalism is a personal achievement. State capitalism seems worse, eminently worse, than the private variety.

Despite the fact that the Labour government was struggling with post-war difficulties, wouldn’t you say that it did great things? For example, granting independence to India, establishing the welfare state, creating the National Health Service… weren’t these positive steps?

I suppose they were, yes, but strangely enough, when you held a particular political view, these things could still seem flawed. I thought, well, they’re breaking up the British Empire for Christ’s sake, and I couldn’t see that it was in any way necessary at that point. I suppose the whole cultural atmosphere seemed to be so depressing. I couldn’t stand those bloody Ealing films, the awful ludicrous British eccentricity. I thought there had to be something better. I was wrong.

It was the beginning of what you call your literary life when you started working with distinguished writers on the literary left, such as Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary. I was slightly surprised to read that when the financial backer of Circus, one of the magazines you worked on, learned of your Communist Party connections, the magazine was closed down. I know this was the Cold War era, but wasn’t this an extreme, almost McCarthyite reaction?

I think it was a natural reaction. We were slightly unfortunate in our literary editor, John Davenport, who went to Paris one weekend and was overheard to say that Randall Swingler (the managing editor) and I were Reds. This got back to Tony Hubbard, our financial backer, who promptly closed what he thought was a subversive enterprise. What he didn’t realise was that we were good communists, and that we were trying to develop an interesting and progressive magazine, which would be better than Lilliput. We weren’t interpreting the party line at all because we hated the party line, we hated the political leadership of the Communist Party.

Did your Communist Party connections ever work to your advantage in your career?

I think so, yes. I was invited to China in 1954 because I was considered a talent worth developing, and China was the inspiration that turned me into an artist. I was ambitious and I let it be known that I’d go anywhere, and this earned me the hatred of my fellow Communist artists who weren’t interested in working. They just sat on their backsides and argued about what constituted socialist realism.

After dropping your magazine work you went back to travelling and drawing, again in Eastern Europe. You say of that time: ‘Life there seemed to have a sense of purpose, or so I imagined then… I recall those days with a sense of nostalgia.’ What was it that you remember with such fondness?

In the early days of the communist regime in Poland the major task was to rebuild the country; that was the priority. The whole population was organised like an army and it seemed to me that they were getting things done, and there was a spirit of euphoria. Then one gradually began to notice that it was becoming a totalitarian state on the Soviet model, with marches and statues of Stalin everywhere, and I didn’t like this. It made me very nervous. It seemed to me that all the effort was being channelled into developing a martial spirit, with soldiers on the streets and with every May Day parade full of tanks and weaponry. I saw and heard too much, I suppose, and began to realise that a regime was evolving which I didn’t have much sympathy with.

Travelling through China in 1954 in the company of people like A.J. Ayer and Stanley Spencer was a wonderful experience for you, increasing your visual awareness and reshaping your artistic taste. But what was your reaction to China itself at that time – five years after the revolution and before the horrors of the Cultural Revolution?

At that time China was completely different, and it was a cultural shock for me. China was a country which had yet to be affected by any industrialisation, and I was stunned by the novelty of what was essentially a feudal regime. If you were out in the street you could go into a market and have your ears cleaned, or your hair cut; everywhere there was a kind of medieval pageantry, a sort of visual spectacle straight out of Breughel. This was what interested me.

In 1956, while on your way to Poland via Hungary, you found that no one was allowed to leave the train in Budapest because a state of emergency had been declared following the invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops and tanks. In Warsaw there was an uproar of anti-Soviet protest and it was there that the scales fell from your eyes and you saw that communism as practised by the Soviet Union was tyranny. How far reaching was this insight?

Although the scales certainly fell from my eyes in Warsaw in 1956, there had been a steady process of disillusionment going on before that. I used to attend a lot of conferences and peace congresses – I was commissioned by various magazines to draw them – and I met a lot of Communist intellectuals there and observed a mood of mounting disillusionment. We already knew about the persecution in Soviet Russia, and there was a feeling that in these Communist regimes everything was not as it seemed. Even amongst the Communist writers with whom I mixed, there was a mood of criticism. I went on to Warsaw in the train to attend a congress of the International Brigades and was welcomed at the station by my old friend and caricaturist, Jerzy Zaruba. He took me to the offices of Swiat which was the Polish equivalent to Private Eye, where editors and journalists listened to the radio and wept at the accounts of the bitter street fighting in Budapest. Eventually Khrushchev himself agreed that the moderate Gomulka should be released from jail to form the new government. He made a speech promising reforms, though we now know that behind the scenes a gun was being pointed at his head, and Khrushchev was waiting with the tanks to move in. After Gomulka spoke there was another demonstration which demanded that all the Russians get out, but this was subject to incredible violence, and squads of riot police launched a series of savage attacks on the people. There were also scenes of violence at the congress I attended where Russian observers were being challenged by Polish and Hungarian delegates to produce their heroes of the Spanish Civil War. According to one delegate they had all been shot on the orders of Stalin. That really opened my eyes.

Was it only the Soviet version of communism you rejected, did you still cling to the idea that had first attracted you?

Yes, I did, and then I gradually lost that belief too. But before that we were simply ignorant of the issues; we didn’t know what was going on really, the extent of the horror and the persecution. It beggared belief.

When you sent an account of what you had seen to the Sunday Times you say you felt like a Judas. How long did it take for that feeling to disappear completely?

It took a long time because being a communist is like being a member of an army, or a religious sect. I felt that I was letting the side down. On the other hand, I had to report what I saw, and my old friend Randall Swingler said, ‘Well, you did right.’

You married for the second time in 1953, a journalist called Phyllis Hayes, and with borrowed money bought a house in the country – a good place to bring up the children Phyllis longed to have. Was the fact that you did not have children together a major factor in the break-up of that marriage?

Not really. She’d been a journalist for the Hungarian news and information service, so she was a Communist, and I was growing away from communism. It was a relationship which was really born out of shared ideas, but when we no longer shared the same ideas it fell apart. She was very didactic, and I just felt I couldn’t go on with the relationship, so I gave her the house because I had borrowed the money off her father, and that was that.

In your memoirs you tell us in a few sentences that in 1959 you eloped with a woman artist, Pat Douthwaite, with whom you had fallen in love, leaving behind Phyllis who, you say, had become ‘increasingly tyrannical’…

Well, she wouldn’t let me work with Brendan Behan, who had offered me the chance of collaborating with him on a book about Ireland. She said she was sick to death of these drunken writers I worked with – indeed she showed a general hostility towards writers. I was having an affair with Pat at the time, and she told me I was an artist and a free spirit and that I should go. So we eloped together.

You were invited by Life magazine to do the illustrations for their issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and you were paid twenty thousand dollars. Did this mark the beginning of real success and recognition, as well as an end to money troubles?

Yes, it did for quite a while, because I was able to buy a house and cover overdrafts. When I left Phyllis I was really on my back, doing drawings for local magazines at a guinea a time, living in a rented farmhouse in East Anglia and painting potatoes to survive. Then Brendan Behan’s Island really took off. It became a bestseller and book-society choice, and then Life magazine got in touch with me after seeing drawings I’d done for a local magazine. I was suddenly discovered.

It seems you were never really able to impress your parents with your success. When they turned up at the opening of your ‘Looking at People’ at the Whitworth Gallery your father refused to enter the exhibition… was that hurtful?

I think the occasion intimidated my father, and my mother was too timid to urge him to go in. When Margaret Pilkington, the director of the gallery and a wonderful woman, came out with a glass of champagne, my father just took fright. He’d never had a drink in his life, and after glimpsing the private view in full progress, I think he got scared. They were both dressed up and obviously had the intention of going in, but when they saw this grand art gallery with columns and lights everywhere and champagne being quaffed, they just couldn’t take it. Well, my mother could take anything – she was very gregarious, a lovely, friendly woman – and she tried to talk my father into it, but he just turned away. He was a farmer’s son from the hills of Cumbria, and they were different people from the townspeople in the plains. He was rather silent, uncommunicative and inarticulate. My mother was very articulate and could make people laugh, but at the same time she respected her husband and deferred to him; it was that kind of marriage.

The death of a man’s father, whatever the state of their relationship in life, is an important event for most sons. What was your own reaction when your father died in 1967?

I was very saddened. I was in Tangier doing a story for the Daily Telegraph and when I went back he was laid out in his coffin. I was very moved, very remorseful that I’d been so awful to him, that I’d been such a bad son. Of course, I hadn’t been so very bad; it was just that a man of his background found it difficult to understand a son who wanted to be an artist.

Your mother lived to the age of ninety-seven and you say that in her widowhood she began to be a little more appreciative of your achievements. Only after she died, however, did you find the complete collection of your books, wrapped in transparent film. How did you react to this discovery?

I burst into tears. I used to send her the books, but there would be no reaction. I never knew that she cared.

Which of all the famous writers with whom you have collaborated impressed you the most?

Graham Greene. There are writers who are immensely sympathetic towards artists and certainly he was one of them. He was easy to work with, but very exacting. He had an innate understanding of artists and what interested them, and it was there all the time. He was a man’s man and yet a woman’s man too; he had both a feminine side and a masculine side to him. He came out of that tradition of English writing – extremely sophisticated with a great sense of humour. However, he did need nudging by Yvonne, his partner of the later period, who used to challenge a lot of his statements and was able to make him slightly less pompous than he sometimes was. But he was very moved by my effort to portray his world and he paid me a great many compliments over certain drawings which evoked memories for him.

You went to Majorca to do a series of drawings, and it was at this point in your autobiography that you mention the existence of a three-year-old son. When and where was he born?

Toby was born in 1960 when my partner was Pat Douthwaite. He’s a lovely boy and we’re very close, though he’s been a bit of a prodigal son, a wild boy on a motorbike, part of that generation. He had a terrible accident when he nearly lost his arm, but it was saved by a doctor in Palma who specialised in putting bullfighters back together again – an incredible man.

You have been married several times… do you look on your relationships with women as successes or failures?

Oh, that’s a hard one. Pat and I divorced too. I was away in America a lot and she was feeling increasingly that she was neglecting her own career. I was very much in love with her, and the idea of having a young son was wonderful but she wanted to be a famous Scottish painter, so she went off to Edinburgh. I think perhaps you’ve got to have a few failures to have a success. My fourth marriage, my present one, is the most successful I’ve had. We almost certainly couldn’t have made a go of it if we had been younger – she has three children, and I would probably have shied away from that commitment before, but now I can cope with it, and we have a good life together.

In 1974 you became a Royal Academician, and as a member of the selection and hanging committee you had to choose a painting by an unknown artist who turned out to be Prince Charles. You have come a long way since your communist youth, but would you describe yourself as a monarchist?

No, I’m not a monarchist. I like people for what they are. Besides, the royals don’t do things right any more than anybody else. As regards the painting, I just reacted to the standard of the work, and it was quite competent.

I’m assuming that as a communist you are not drawn to religion, even though many Italian Catholics are also communists… am I right?

I’m drawn only to religious music. I love the music of the Catholic composers, particularly Purcell and that period. I do go to church now and again because my wife is a Scottish Episcopalian. I feel Christianity is a myth, but I like the culture it created.

What do you think will happen to you when you die?

I would like to think I could join some Elysium and meet up with some of my old friends. But what I actually believe is that it will be ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And that will be it.

Interview conducted June 1999

Knowledge is Immunity at its Best

People with Type 2 Diabetes are always in danger of an early death if their sugar level is not properly contained. I suffer from this awful predicament and although I have never experienced a heart problem so far, I’m always curious to find out how to ensure that my heart will see me through the next few years without any serious complications.

So you can imagine my interest in reading that a high dose of statins slashes the risk of a heart attack by up to 30% compared with normal strength tablets, a major study has found. American researchers say there is a substantial opportunity to prevent more deaths through wider use of stronger pills.

Most patients on statins take a dose of between 5 and 40 mg per day depending on the type of tablet. But the US study which involved 500,000 adults looked at patients who had been taking doses of up to 80 mg daily. Doctors are reluctant to prescribe the strongest pills unless patients have a very high risk of heart attack and strokes because the side effects are more severe.

These commonly include muscle tissue damage – and tenderness and soreness – and there is some evidence that statins harm the kidneys. Researchers from Stanford University in California looked at 509,766 adults who were given statins to treat a common type of heart disease. Known as atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease or ASCVD, it is caused by the blood vessels becoming clogged with fatty deposits.

Some 30% of the group were classified as being on high intensity statin-therapy, 46% on moderate doses and the remainder on low intensity levels. The high intensity group were found to be 20% less likely to die in a year than those on the moderate dose.

Compared with the low dose group they had 29% less risk of dying within a year. Dr Paul Heidenreich whose study is published in the journal JAMA Cardiology, said ‘These findings suggest there is a substantial opportunity for improvement in the secondary prevention of ASCVD through optimisation of intensity of statin therapy.’

An estimated 6 million adults in Britain are thought to be taking statins to prevent heart attacks and strokes. The drugs cost less than 6p per day and work by reducing the level of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol causes fatty deposits to build up in blood vessels. But there has been widespread controversy over statin safety with some experts claiming that the risks outweigh the benefits.

Common side effects include severe muscle pain, Type 2 Diabetes, kidney damage, liver failures and even death. The Stanford University study classified high intensity statins as being between 40 and 80 mg of atorvastatin, 20-40 mg of rosuvastatin or 80 mg of simvastatin.

Professor Jeremy Pearson associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation said: ‘Heart disease is incurable. We have no way of reversing the furring of the arteries that can lead to a deadly heart attack or stroke.

‘But decades of this research, much of it funded by the British Heart Foundation, showed that statins can help save lives by slowing the progression of the disease. This last study shows that more intensive statin treatment reduces death rates further than low intensity or no treatment in people with cardiovascular disease. While the research confirms the greater benefits of more intensive treatment, decisions on dosage require conversation between patients and their doctor.’

A major study in the Lancet this year said that statins prevented 80,000 heart attacks and strokes a year in the UK, and claimed the benefits by far outweigh the risks. But the confusion intensified a week later when a rival medical journal, the BMJ, insisted the pills were not as safe as that research had claimed.

As I said at the outset, it is always prudent to be well-informed about health matters, especially with the onset of old age and being classified as a Type 2 diabetic. Knowledge in these matters enables you to conform to a healthy regime and avoid excesses, particularly in what you eat.

Lack of Sleep is a Health Hazard

Since research has become a very important factor in the prevention of ill-health, people in general are living longer and maintaining a more active life than ever before.

It is incredible that scientists have discovered that just one night of sleep deprivation is enough to cause strain on the heart, forcing it to work around 10% harder the next day, a study has found.

People who work in fire and emergency medical services and other high-stress jobs are often called upon to work twenty-four-hour shifts with little opportunity to sleep.

While it is known that extreme fatigue can affect many physical cognitive and emotional processes, the study is the first to examine how working a twenty-four-hour  shift affects heart function.

‘For the first time we have shown that short-term sleep deprivation in the context of twenty-four-hour shifts can lead to a significant increase in cardiac contractility, blood pressure and heart rate,’ said Dr Daniel Kuetting, the author of the study from the University of Bonn in Germany.

For the study, twenty healthy radiologists, including nineteen men and one woman, with a mean age of 31.6 years, were recruited and their hearts checked before and after a twenty-four-hour shift with an average of three hours of sleep.

Following sleep deprivation the participants showed significant increases in the strain on the heart, with the organ having to work around 10% harder than usual.

‘As people continue to work longer hours or work at more than one job to make ends meet, it is critical to investigate the detrimental effects of too much work and not enough sleep,’ said Dr Kuetting.

Since the unexpected death of my wife last February, sleep has become rather difficult. I toss and turn endlessly in order to induce an hour or two of sleep but then wake up rather tired and unable to go to sleep again. Nights become a nightmare in general and I dread the notion of going to bed, unless I feel exhausted and even then a good night’s sleep without interruption is not easy to achieve.

This study will certainly alert me to the danger of not sleeping enough and alert others who read my blog, to the importance of ensuring a good night’s sleep. Bravado in claiming to sleep less hours, rather than remain in a full cognitive state, is no longer on my agenda.