Monthly Archives: February 2018

No Longer With Us


John Donaldson was born in 1920-2005 and educated at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge. After being commissioned in the Royal Signals, he was called to the bar in 1946, becoming a QC in 1961. From 1966-79 he was a judge of the high court, and from 1971-4 he was president of the National Industrial Relations Court. He was the presiding judge in several high-profile cases, including the MacGuires, the Guildford Four and the Bridgewater Three. In 1982 he became Master of the Rolls, an office which he held for ten years. He was made life peer in 1988.He is best known in some circles for his role as presiding judge in the infamous Guildford Four miscarriage of justice, especially his closing remarks where he regretted his inability to hang those wrongly convicted


I interviewed him in 1996 and here is the substance of what he told me then.

The typical caricature of a judge is of a rather pompous and unapproachable character. You obviously don’t fit into that category … have you felt rather set apart from most of your colleagues in that regard?

It’s a complete myth that judges are like that. I’m not saying that there isn’t the odd judge of whom that might be said, but in general it certainly isn’t true. And in so far as I’m not pompous, I don’t feel set apart.

Your education and background – Charterhouse and Trinity, Cambridge – are, however, rather typical for a high-court judge. Is it a good thing, do you think, that you were in the traditional mould?

You have to go back to that period when most of the jobs, not only in the law but elsewhere, were held by people who came from public schools and Oxbridge. It wasn’t that there was anything special about the judiciary. Today it is very different; it would be quite wrong to think that the current judiciary comes from public schools and Oxbridge. This has to do with an evolving society in which there are much wider opportunities than existed in pre-war times.

In 1984 you say that one thing lawyers are trained to do is to know their prejudices and their preconceptions and to isolate themselves from them. How would you identify your own prejudices and preconceptions?

[Laughter.] I don’t actually keep a check list of prejudices and preconceptions. The context is everything. Suppose, for example, you believe that in the shipping world there are certain nationalities which are more suspect than others, you still have to approach each individual from that nation on the basis that he is honest until the contrary is proved.

Do you think you have succeeded in standing back from these prejudices in your own professional life?

The answer to that must be yes, but if I hadn’t succeeded I’m not sure I would be conscious of the fact. As a barrister, however, you are trained to be objective, it’s in the interest of your client that you should be objective, and when you go on to the bench you’re merely continuing the objectivity. As a barrister you sometimes have to act for someone whom you regard as a most objectionable character, but you just have to ignore your dislike. When you are a judge it’s the same thing – you just put it on one side.

You once said that you have always regarded the law as a benevolent force in our complex society. Have you ever had reason to take the opposite view – also a common perception – that the law is an ass?

Individual laws perhaps, but the law as a whole, no. It’s much misunderstood, notably by the media, but I don’t regard it as an ass at all. There are of course people who litigate in circumstances where the costs grossly exceed what’s at stake. One of the things that most irritates me is when litigants tell me that there is a point of principle involved. I’ve only ever known one man who litigated as a matter of principle and that was one of the McWhirter twins. He himself probably had only a marginal personal interest but he thought that the point was of general importance, and significantly he was proved right.
You first rose to fame – or perhaps notoriety – at the time of the ill-fated National Industrial Relations Court [1972-4]. Rightly or wrongly you were seen as a political appointment, and a number of Labour MPs signed a motion calling for your dismissal on grounds of political bias. How did you cope with being in the firing line?

The fact that I was irremovable made the whole thing so much easier. The pressures from various segments of society were absolutely enormous, but it would all have been much more difficult if I could have been removed. If somebody is standing on the edge of a cliff and there is a gale blowing, his difficulty is knowing to what extent he can lean forward into the gale without falling over the edge. If you know that you are planted firmly you don’t have to bother. Of course, I’d rather not have had those numbers of people objecting, particularly when it was on entirely false grounds. You must remember that I was well aware at the time that much of the comment being made about the way I was carrying on the job had nothing to do with how I was performing; it was a political campaign. One irritation which I suffered was a story which ran and ran that I had been a Conservative parliamentary candidate. It was totally untrue. I believe the originator of the story was somebody who should have known better, namely Lord Jenkins of Putney. What he was actually referring to was an election for the Croydon Burgh Council in which I was a ratepayer candidate. I agree that the ratepayers were Conservatives, but in those days they called themselves ratepayers because they were purely local politicians and didn’t wish to have anything to do with national politics.

You took the unusual step of defending yourself against the charge of political bias at the time … were you absolutely confident that you could be free of such bias?

I can’t remember doing so … but if you tell me I did I suppose I must have done. There was certainly no question of political bias; what we were there to do was to try and smooth the course of industrial relations, and in many ways we were quite successful actually. It was an interesting world in which nothing was as it appeared to the public at all. We had excellent relations to the unions, subject to the proviso that we never revealed that we were talking to the unions. The unions, while perfectly reasonable in talking to us, remained free to be totally unreasonable in public. It has been a feature of trade-union life – certainly in my experience – that they operate on two levels. People may regard that as dishonest or reprehensible; I actually don’t, because unions have been brought up to do this and that’s fine by me. As long as you understand the system then it works perfectly well.

In 1972 you spoke to the High Court Journalists’ Association and made a most colourful remark in defence of the charge of political bias which has followed you around ever since. You said: ‘My attitude towards political life is much the same as that of a monk towards sex – nostalgic memories of youthful indiscretion, a frank acknowledgement of its attractions, and an unshakeable conviction that I could do better than those engaged in it.’ What puzzles me is this: granted that we allow the monk a bit of sexual experience, albeit in the past, it is surely not unreasonable to assume that during his sexually active period he might have developed certain preferences for one thing rather than another, and that these might remain with him, even if at a purely imaginative and notional level. In other words, your own politically active life, albeit in the past, might continue to influence you later opinions and judgements…

What the remark was really meant to reflect was that during the 1930s I was an active Conservative politician, not in the sense of being a member of the House of Commons, but in my capacity as chairman of the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations. I was secretary of the Cambridge Union and if I had been asked at the stage about my future career I would have said I wanted to be to be a Conservative politician and the prime minister. It was partly with that in mind that I became a member of the Croydon County Burgh Council, but it became perfectly apparent to me as time went on that as a junior barrister it was impossible to have a political career. It was like sitting on a three-legged stool, one leg being family, another politics and another the bar, and it was quite clear that one leg was going to give way. So beyond being active in the Inns of Court Conservative Association and similar organizations I did nothing about it. By the time I took silk I had become a good deal less enchanted with the political life. I once heard a member of the Commons, a Conservative politician, talking complete rubbish in Croydon, and that made me question whether the career was a sensible one. I certainly mitigated my enthusiasm. When it became quite apparent that as a silk I couldn’t do it, I became more and more non-political. My philosophy at that time would certainly have been much more on the Conservative or Liberal wing of the spectrum than on the Socialist wing, and I think that is probably still true, except that New Labour seems to have caught up. But it never occurs to me now to be party political; I’m a cross-bench peer and that’s not out of loyalty to my past profession – it’s my actual philosophy.

Would you agree, however, with the public perception that most judges are conservative in both senses … to what extent is it reasonable to expect them to overcome their natural leanings in court?

It’s probably true to say that most judges are conservative with a small c, but one thing which is not sufficiently appreciated is that when the heads of divisions and the Lord Chancellor meet to discuss what name should be put forward to the Queen, the political views of the judge are never discussed.

The law, or the complex workings of the law, is often perceived to be remote from ordinary people and sometimes unavailable to them. Is this something which worries you?

Yes, indeed. The remoteness takes two forms. First of all there’s limited access, and secondly there’s the fact that the law has its technicalities, for most of which there’s a good reason. It’s very difficult to get rid of these technicalities or explain them in terms which would make sense to the general public. To say it’s a public-relations problem is perhaps misleading, but it is an education problem. There’s also the business of costs which are absolutely formidable. I don’t think that in general it is the fault of the lawyers, since it has become vastly more expensive to run a practice nowadays. If you decree that no solicitor was allowed to make a profit, I don’t believe that costs would come down all that much because such a very high proportion of solicitor’s fees represents pure expense. What we’ve really got to do is try and find systems which render the skills of a lawyer unnecessary. We also have to see if we can’t develop systems for dealing with disputes which are simpler and are perhaps taken outside the ordinary mainstream of the courts.

On the question of legal costs, it’s surely the case that some illustrious QCs today demand fees like film stars … do you think that’s justifiable?

Well, it’s a market, isn’t it? I also wonder just how much they do actually earn. For example, I remember once when the question was raised about having subscriptions to the bar council put on a voluntary basis, I thought it would be a very good idea to ask members of the bar to declare what their incomes were and to pay one pound per thousand. I thought the bar would make a large sum of money because everybody would be very happy to exaggerate their income, but that wasn’t the case at all.

You were one of England’s youngest high-court judges at the age of forty-five. Did you feel that as an awesome responsibility?

Not on grounds of age. I don’t think that people are conscious of the age of judges, and in any case I’d had an army career, I’d been a junior barrister, I’d been a QC – it was a natural progression. I was lucky in that a vacancy occurred which I was thought suitable to fill, but it didn’t bother me at all that I was young.

In 1974, after a Labour victory, you spent some years in the wilderness until Mrs Thatcher sent you to the Court of Appeal in 1979. Three years later she appointed you Minister of the Rolls. Setting aside the merits of your own case, do you think it is actually healthy that these appointments should be political? Doesn’t that make them open to abuse, or at least to the charge of abuse?

Obviously they are open to the charge of abuse. I’ve no idea whether or not my appointment to the Court of Appeal was on political grounds – I’m not privy to that. We’ll have to wait until you and I are both dead before any documentation emerges about that. I do know there’s a popular belief that that was the case. As I said to you, however, in the discussions to which I was privy, politics just didn’t enter into it at all; they were as irrelevant as the colour of the judge’s hair. Yet the charge persists. There are some who think that it would be a good idea to have a judicial appointments commission in order to get rid of the charge. One of the troubles is that a judicial appointments commission is also open to the charge of being political. And there are real difficulties if you start revealing the considerations which go towards appointments.

You succeeded Lord Denning as Master of the Rolls … was that a particularly hard act to follow?

Yes, quite impossible. One of the first things I had to do was to make it clear that I wasn’t Lord Denning, the second thing was to make clear that I was not Lord Denning mark II.

When you took up the appointment you immediately introduced changes to speed up the hearing of cases. In fact, your ability to dispose of cases became quite legendary. This led some clients and barristers to believe they were getting a less than fair hearing. How would you respond to that?

That was never the case. The plain fact is that in many cases when you first read the papers you can form a pretty accurate view as to what the answer is. The one vital thing is that you must always be prepared to change your mind, and I was. I once said, with only slight exaggeration, that the art of being a presiding judge in the Court of Appeal was to ensure that you never heard arguments from more than one side; the trick was to know which side.

You seem to be defending yourself against criticism by saying that as long as the right answer is arrived at, there is no harm in taking short cuts. But surely the point is that by speeding up the process and cutting short the argument, the right answer may not be arrived at.

Obviously that’s a risk you’ve got to guard against. It’s true I have always been conscious of the face that in trial work you get a barrister who bangs on and on and eventually you tell him that he’s made that point three times already, and suddenly, perhaps because he slightly alters the way he puts it, you become aware that he has in fact got a point. That has always worried me a little bit, because if I had succeeded in shutting him up I wouldn’t have understood it. The answer is, you’re not infallible.

When English law comes under attack, the normal defence is that even if it doesn’t always establish the truth, it tries to be fair. But over the years we have discovered that the big trials of the 1970s and 1980s were not fair. Surely this is a serious indictment of the system.

I don’t want to talk about the 1970s trial, because I was the presiding judge at two of them. It would be quite wrong for me to discuss them. What I would say is this: in every one of these cases the problem was one of evidence which has subsequently been found not what it appeared to be at the time. That is certainly not an indictment of the judges, and I don’t think it’s an indictment of the juries either. A case has to be tried on the basis of the evidence as it is presented to the court. The crown counsel in a criminal is not there to get a conviction, he’s there to present the prosecution case, and if anything comes to his knowledge which casts doubts on the prosecution case, he’s under a duty to either bring it out himself or hand it over to the defence. The defence on the other hand is there to get the man off within professional limits which are well known. There is a major difference between the two roles.

But shouldn’t we be much more tough on police evidence than we’ve been before?

Who is it who has to be more tough on police evidence? It is the jury that decides under our system, and a judge would be stepping outside his role if he said to the jury, look, you ought not to believe the superintendent. All that a judge can and should do is to advise them to weigh up the evidence. I’ve certainly said on many occasions to juries that the accused goes into the witness box in exactly the same position as a police officer: either may be telling the truth or not be telling the truth. It’s a great mistake to think that judges have suddenly woken up to the fact that there are bent policemen; we’ve known this for years.

Let me put it this way, shouldn’t the public prosecutor be more vigilant about police evidence?

Obviously it’s desirable that he should be as vigilant as possible. But when you suggest to me that he should be more vigilant I honestly don’t know to what extent he is vigilant at the moment, so it would not be fair for me to suggest that he should be more vigilant.

In the tricky area of miscarriages of justice your own record is rather worrying, because in 1976 you were responsible for sentencing the Guildford Four and the MacGuires. Do these cases still haunt you?

Not in the least.

Why is that? It was surely wrong to sentence them?

I said I didn’t want to discuss those cases. It would be quite wrong of me.

All right, we won’t discuss them, but they were innocent men, were they not?

Well, this is where we get into difficulties. The plain fact is that the courts are not in the business of deciding whether people are innocent; they’re in the business of deciding whether people are guilty. These are not two sides of a single coin. If you had something like a swingometer where the vertical position is the truth, you’re going to be to one side of vertical or the other in a significant number of cases, human fallibility being what it is. What the courts have done traditionally for a couple of centuries is – rather than to aim at the truth – to aim in favour of acquittal to a degree where we are reasonably satisfied that no innocent man will be convicted, bar the exceptional case. Now it follows from this that if on appeal a man is found not guilty it means that the needle hasn’t gone far enough towards the truth point to justify convicting him. The media always say that when somebody is acquitted, or if a conviction is quashed, that a man’s innocence has been established. Well, that just simply isn’t true. There are exceptional cases where that could be said, where, for example, a man put forward an alibi defence which wasn’t accepted by the jury and at a subsequent stage it was shown by unimpeachable evidence to be a watertight alibi. Then it could be said that he was innocent of the charge against him, but that is a very rare event.

If I might just take this a little further … Sir John May who enquired into the trial of the MacGuires in 1990 suggested that you seriously misunderstood and mishandled critical evidence during the trial. He said, ‘The conduct of the trial can be validly challenged on at least two counts.’ How do you respond to that?

There are two responses. One is that I don’t think that such a comment was within his terms of reference. Secondly, I don’t agree with it. He’s entitled to his view, but I think he’s wrong.

You declined to give evidence to Sir John May’s enquiry … why was that?

My recollection is that I didn’t decline to give evidence; what I said was that I thought that it was wrong for a trial judge to say anything other than that which was contained in the transcripts. One of the features of a criminal trial is that only communication between the judge and the jury is open in court. It is the jury who convict, and find the man guilty, and it would be wrong for the trial judge to say anything afterwards other than that which he said at the time.

Are you saying that a judge does not have much influence over a jury?

I think he has influence to secure an acquittal; I don’t think he has influence to secure a conviction. As I’ve said it is extremely important that the innocent shall be acquitted, even if some of the guilty are acquitted as well. I have done a very considerable body of criminal work, and never in that time was anybody ever convicted whom I wouldn’t have been quite happy to convict. There were also a very large number of cases in which I was totally satisfied that the accused was guilty and yet the jury acquitted. The whole thing is stacked, and rightly stacked, in favour of the accused.

Robert Kee said of you: ‘He does his best to be dispassionate, but he cannot see his unconscious prejudice in favour of prosecution.’ How do you respond to that?

If I cannot see my unconscious prejudice, it’s difficult to know how I can comment on it. He’s entitled to his view. I’m very glad he thinks I do my best.

But what is puzzling, and really rather worrying, is that in your case you have something of a reputation for not leaning towards the establishment, for not necessarily going for the obvious solution, and yet terrible mistakes happen…

What terrible mistakes?

For example people are sent to prison and after about eighteen years they’re suddenly released…

Well, mistakes will happen, it’s a fallible system. You’re obviously talking about the Bridgewater case, and as I’ve said, neither judges nor juries can do other than try cases on the evidence presented to them. Of what I’ve heard of the Bridgewater case, that’s precisely what happened. What worries me is that members of the juries who convicted in these so-called miscarriages of justice cases may feel that they have a responsibility for what happened. I don’t think they do, because they did their jobs, and they did it to the best of their ability. They have nothing to blame themselves for.

Shouldn’t the prosecutors bear a heavy responsibility for the number of wrongful prosecutions? I mean, either evidence was improperly obtained or faked, as in the case of the late Patrick Malloy, the fourth Bridgewater man, or details which might have helped the defence were withheld … Shouldn’t the prosecutors be accountable as they would be in any other profession?

Accountable to whom? The plain fact is that if individuals don’t do their job properly they don’t get employed again. It’s different with judges and barristers, but they are immune for a very good reason. If they could be challenged there would never be any finality in litigation. The losing party would probably start an action against his or her counsel and enthusiastic litigants would make sure that the process went on for ever.

Is there perhaps a more general problem built into our legal system? Since we have an adversarial system, have you ever been worried that in some cases the truth will not necessarily prevail because victory is sometimes merely a function of successful argument?

I think I’ve only once or twice thought an advocate so good that I really had to be a bit careful about accepting his arguments. But in general, adversarial justice is probably the best possible system.

But would you accept that there may be a small percentage of cases won or lost through advocacy, rather than the prevailing of truth?

There are perhaps one or two cases that are lost through bad advocacy, but I’m not sure that cases are won by good advocacy. The theory is much exaggerated if it’s true at all.

After the appeal of the Birmingham Six, Lord Denning said on television that public confidence in the law was more important than one or two people being wrongly convicted … what was your reaction to that remark?

It was an unfortunate remark.

Lord Denning also said that Chris Mullin had done a great disservice to British justice. Many people believe that Lord Denning ought to have been publicly condemned and brought to account for that remark. Do you?

I don’t know about the remark, but I do think there is a problem with programmes like Rough Justice and their newspaper equivalents, because they only present one side, and the great British public assumes that there is no other side. I don’t criticize journalists for not going into it objectively – they don’t have the facilities to do it – but what that means is that you then get two systems of justice, trial by media and trial by the courts; and that is bad for the courts. I really would be much happier if investigative journalists would reach their conclusions and then pass them on to the appropriate authorities rather than making them public. That would serve the interests of justice, just as much as what they’re doing at the moment. Of course, it wouldn’t serve the interests of newspapers, and that’s the problem.

Is that why you intervened when the Daily Mail accused the five men of the murder of Stephen Lawrence?

Yes. There could be nothing more directly designed to destroy confidence in our legal system than for the Daily Mail to denounce the five men as murderers and suggest that therefore the system of justice had failed. In truth, of course, the Daily Mail may or may not have been right that they were responsible for the killing of the Lawrence boy, but as I said, the system is designed not to establish that fact but to establish whether we were all so sure that they could be properly convicted. The fact was that on the available evidence, the court was not satisfied. It’s not then the business of the Daily Mail to say that they were satisfied that the men were murderers. They could have done no greater disservice to our system of justice, but the public at large don’t understand this.

Some years ago I interviewed Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, and that put the enormity of miscarriages of justice in a very human context. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of shame and humility in the face of an innocent man’s life having being largely destroyed. Aren’t we all demeaned by such a tragedy?

No, certainly not demeaned. Human justice is fallible. We have in every case to examine what went wrong and the degree to which it went wrong, and then we have to try and see how the system can be improved.

How do you view people like Robert Kee, Ludovic Kennedy and Chris Mullin and more recently Paul Foot? Have they been thorns in the flesh of the legal system?

They are not thorns in the flesh. They are pursuing campaigns; whether they are as objective as one would like is a matter for argument. I suppose it can be said that they do good when where eventually convictions are quashed, but some things they say go a good deal further than are fully justified.

But if it does some good in the end…

But it’s also doing harm in the sense that it is destroying confidence in the system. The assumption the public make is that if people complain enough then they must be right, and that isn’t true, if the system rejects the claims, then the public feel that there are innocent people in jail, which may also not be true.

Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets about anything – things you might have done differently?

We will always make mistakes, and I will give you an example of a case where I certainly got it wrong. In the Industrial Relations Court with the Midlands coldstore dockers, they were defying the court and it seemed to me to be perfectly clear that if we imposed a small fine they would go round to the pub and have a whip round and laugh all the way to court to pay their fine. If we imposed a large fine which would seem disproportionate if they were individuals (which of course they weren’t because there was an enormous organization behind them) they would all claim that they were being oppressed by the size of the fine. Since I thought this was all perfectly obvious to everybody, I decided the only answer was to imprison them. That turned out to be an error of judgement. What I should have done was to impose a small fine, let them have their laugh at the incompetence of the judge, and then put them inside because the public would have understood. It was really an error of presentation, not of justice.

You have had a long and happy marriage, ahead of its time perhaps in the sense that your wife had her own independent professional life, and you were sometimes in the Denis Thatcher role. Did you mind that?

Not in the least, though I think it would have been more difficult if I hadn’t had my own role in life. Of course Denis Thatcher has his role but it wasn’t a public role. We never felt competitive because we were operating in totally different fields. My wife would certainly have been very unhappy not to have an independent role once the children were of an age where they could be left. Of course in the early days of their growing up she devoted herself full time to them. We both think there are enormous stresses and strains in families where the children are young and both partners are working full time. It may be necessary, but it is not an ideal situation.

Are you a religious man?

I don’t know if that really has much to do with my professional career. The public does not have a legitimate interest in one’s personal beliefs.

I just wondered if you think it necessary or desirable for our judges to be religious, to be seen to live a good life?

Well, they’re two quite different things. You can live a good life without being religious … as it happens I’m not actually religious, but I believe in the values of Christianity.

China on the Move

As a boy of sixteen I read a great deal, especially stories by the American author Pearl S. Buck about China. This is where my interest in the country began in earnest. Now I find myself fascinated by what’s happening there, having visited the country on many an occasion. Surprisingly, my early interest in this vast country remains as strong as ever.

About a month ago, I read that China has announced plans to plant new forests this year that will cover at least 6.6 billion hectares, an area roughly the size of Ireland. The move is China’s latest bid to become a world leader in environment protection, after Donald Trump, the whacky US president, chose to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement last year. China’s state forestry administration target is to increase the number of hectares of forest in the country to 23% of the local land by 2020, with the figure currently at 21.7%.

Zhang Jianlong, head of the administration, said that by 2035 the figure will be up to 26%. ‘Companies, organisations and talent that specialise in greening work are all welcome to join in the country’s massive campaign,’ he said. ‘Cooperation between government and social capital will be put on the priority list.’

China, which has to feed a quarter of the global population using just 7% of the world’s arable land, has long struggled to strike a balance between industrial growth, maximising food production and protecting its environment. Its cities have been blighted with chronic air pollution due to rampant industrial expansion in the past few decades.

In 2014, China declared ‘a war on pollution’. As well as cracking down on polluting companies and punishing officials who break environmental rules, forest expansion and cleaning up polluted rivers have become top priorities. This year, new forest areas have been built in the north-east Hebei province, Qinghai province in the Tibetan plateau, and in the Hunshadake Desert in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in the north.

Mr Zhang said that 33.8 million hectares of forest had been planted nationwide over the last five years with a total investment of more than 538 billion yuan (£61 billion), bringing the country’s total forest area to 200 million hectares. Three new state forests with a total area of 483,000 hectares would also be built in the new Xiong development in Hebei Province, he said. The heavily polluted Hebei which surrounds the capital Beijing has pledged to raise total forest coverage to 35% by the end of 2020. The government has also introduced ‘ecological red line’ policies that require local governments to curb what they deem to be irrational developments near forests, rivers and parks.

It is unbelievable the extent of the progress that’s taking place in every sector in China at the present time. If things continue at this rate, China will soon become a gigantic world power which Napoleon predicted long ago.


A Poem for a Princess

Christina Oxenberg, author of Dynasty, has matured over the years to the extent that her talents keep improving with the passage of time. Her writing gets better; her personality reinvents itself to capture the trend of the moment; her sense of humour remains a talking point; and her knowledge of human frailties gives her a notable edge in everything she turns her attention to.











The TLS reviewing her novel Royal Blue, which Quartet published in 1997, called it ‘at its best reminiscent of early Francoise Sagan, evocative and funny,’ while the Independent on Sunday said: ‘Oxenberg creates a languid, ferociously beautiful and barbarous world.’

Having not seen her for a number of years until recently, I am astounded by her capacity to grow in stature and captivate everyone she meets. Her book Dynasty, which we published a few days ago proves my point. She bubbles with energy and enthusiasm and it’s a joy to see her in action. Her future seems assured and I am proud that our reunion will trigger new dimensions which will elevate her sublimity to a woman for all seasons.



It’s remarkable how new studies tend to reverse previous beliefs that the likes of butter, cream and cheese are harmful, whereas now a major study confirms that their avoidance in our diet could actually increase the risk of an early death. Experts concluded low fat diets could do more harm than good – finding those who eat the least fat have the highest mortality rates. The research, presented recently at the world’s largest heart conference, challenges decades of dietary advice to focus on cutting fat. The Canadian research team, who published their study in the Lancet, said that fat may actually have a protective effect on health. They found those with the lowest fat intake were 23 percent more likely to die young. The scientists, instead, recommended cutting back carbohydrates – potatoes, bread, pasta and rice – which UK authorities say should be at the centre of a healthy diet.

Experts said the findings add to the uncertainty over healthy diets. Dr Mahshid Dehghan of McMaster University told the European Society of Cardiology Science in Barcelona: ‘For decades, dietary guidelines have focused on reducing total fat and saturated fatty acids. The body needs fat. It carries vitamins; it provides essential acids, it has a role in the body.’ She stressed that people should not eat unlimited fat and the British guidance of getting 35 percent of energy from fat would be the healthiest. But she warned the focus on low-fat dieting – a drive supported by UK authorities – means people often go below this level and fat is often replaced with carbohydrates and sugar, increasing risks to the heart.

Her team assessed the diets of 135,335 people, aged 35 to 70, from 18 countries, over 7.4 years. Researchers found those in the lowest fifth for fat intake were 23 per cent more likely to die than those in the highest fifth. And those with the highest carbohydrates intake were 28 percent more likely to die than those with the lowest. Researcher Dr Andrew Mente said: ‘Our message is one of moderation. Our data suggests that low fat diets put populations at increased risk for cardiovascular diseases.’ Public Health England recommends adults get up to 35 percent of their energy from fat and 50 percent from carbohydrates. British cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, who has fought against the advice that fat should be cut, said: ‘It’s time for a complete U-turn in the dietary guidance.’

Professor Jeremy Pearson, of the British Heart Foundation, said the UK should reconsider dietary guidelines, particularly in carbohydrates. A Lancet editorial by scientists at the US National Institute of Ageing warned years of confusion would follow, but Professor Susan Jebb, the British Government’s former obesity Tsar called the study’s finding into question – saying many non-diet factors could have contributed to the deaths. And Public Health England insisted it would not change its guidance. Its Chief Nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone said reducing fat intake was still recommended.

The controversy about fat intake still remains in certain quarters. However the best way to stay healthy is simply to moderate what you eat and the quantity that you eat. The rest is governed by your own destiny.

Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes ?

In the Journal Of the Commonwealth Lawyer’s Association the following book review of Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes ? by Desmond De Silva appeared in the current issue of the magazine.

412mmWgri7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHere what it emphasises :

“To say that Desmond de Silva QC comes with an exotic background and a remarkable
career would not be an exaggeration. Born in Ceylon of Sinhalese and Anglo-Scottish origins, schooled in England, married to a Yugoslav princess, called to the English
Bar (where he established a successful career as a criminal silk) and invited to carry out a number of international missions, including some high-profile ones such as the arrest of the Liberian strongman Charles Taylor for war crimes in Sierra
Leone, he has been in the limelight for some years now.

In these, his memoirs, he recounts the highs and lows of his eventful career. Included are reminiscences of some of the cases he has been involved in, pen portraits of many of the ‘great and the good’ he has mixed with, and observations on important developments in the world of English law. His affection for the common law and its continuing significance will be of particular interest to many, as will his trenchant observations on some of the more controversial happenings of recent years.
Sample this broadside on the diminution of the role of the
Lord High Chancellor:

Today, in 2017, there are forces at play that have even left members of the judiciary waiting to leave in droves. Something is terribly wrong when a barrister, in order to obtain a practising certificate, is required to make a contribution to a war chest maintained by the Bar Council to finance battles with the Lord Chancellor who, until 2012,when the rot set in seriously, was a distinguished lawyer and
the trusted voice for the Bar in Cabinet.

Hugely entertaining as it is, there is also – in common with many autobiographies – a certain amount of vanity evident in the book. But, taken as a whole, this is a volume which will be welcomed by lawyers and non-lawyers alike within the

As his publisher, Quartet is proud to have had the privilege of having Desmond as one of its authors, such a great character, a brilliant QC and a man whose wit and joie de vivre is unsurpassable. Buy his book and you will be enthralled!


As you get older your curiosity takes on new dimensions. Living long enables you to perceive the world in a different light, knowing quite well that your passage on earth dwindles with every day that passes by. Mine at present seems to revolve around astronomy which of late has discovered more wonders than ever expected in the past few months, all thanks to man’s ingenuity in building much larger telescopes which reveal the enormity of the universe and what it contains.

Even the Three Wise Men could never have kept up with this latest discovery. Astronomers are actively tracking the fastest object yet detected, travelling at more than 18 million miles an hour and, believe it or not, is still accelerating. The star, known as S2, is hurtling around the massive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, our home galaxy.


Astronomers have found it has an egg-shaped orbit. This is about to take it so close to the Black Hole that the intense gravity will accelerate it to speeds unimaginable for an object 15 times more massive than our sun, potentially reaching 2.5% of the speed of light.

They are tracking it with a very large telescope, the world’s most advanced optical instrument, in Chile. It is part of the European Southern Observatory, whose spokesman said that S2 observations would confirm aspects of Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. This star of wonder will no doubt unravel further theories that have so far escaped our comprehension.

What an exciting time in which to live, in terms of scientific progress. At least this will hopefully deflect humanity from this current ghastly period, where evil and greed have befallen a society where morals seem to have disintegrated.


Crosland (23 January 1927 -26 February 2011) was an American journalist and novelist who was resident in London for more than fifty years. She was the widow of the Labour Party politician Antony Crosland.

Here is the substance of an interview I did with her in 1987.


Susan Crosland: I was brought up in a close family – a very close extended family – and loved both my parents and was a much-loved youngest child of a youngest child of a youngest child. So I was very much a pet. At certain ages, my mother influenced me more; at other ages my father did, and it went on like that throughout my adulthood until they died. It shifted back and forth. My father was probably the greater influence in terms of tolerance. My mother was much more prejudiced, but I loved her.

Susan Crosland: Child-rearing is where I would redress the balance. Largely because I think when the woman gets stuck with an atrocious husband – perhaps he isn’t even atrocious, probably just boring – but when she gets stuck and can’t get out of this marriage, and goes on running the household for a man she doesn’t love, who doesn’t appreciate her, she’s usually stuck because of children. She can’t leave the children, and she has no way to support them. If you could somehow put that right, give her help in child-rearing, I think a lot of things would flow from it. She’d be free to develop other sides of her character, and if she didn’t, that would be her problem.

Susan Crosland: To my surprise, I find I have become a feminist. I thought I was born and bred a feminist because my mother had a job. Most of my married life I worked and I used to be rather complacent about feminists and think, why do they have to go on so about it, why don’t they just do something? All this going on and on about it. But that drip, drip, drip process of theirs has had some effect on me and I have come to feel that I was lucky, and I could fight my battles, such as they were, combine them with marriage quite happily, but most people can’t. By that process, I became rather a feminist out of compassion for women who hadn’t had any good luck and opportunities and can’t do it for themselves, and are trapped in poverty (money’s a big factor) or trapped in a marriage (a hollow relationship).

Middle-class women are trying to persuade the working-class women and the working-class women are on the whole content with the set-up as it is. Mind you, a hell of a lot of working-class women have jobs outside the home and, again, don’t quite know what all this talk is about because they have part-time jobs at Birds-Eye factories and talk to their women friends and are tough. But I think single-minded career women are probably thin on the ground still. One of the great advantages we have over men – and we have a lot of psychological advantages over men – is that we are not single-minded like Mrs Thatcher on the whole. We have families as well, so if something happens to the job, all are eggs aren’t in that single basket. We can be at home and lead a creative life, a full life, whereas the man, if he’s over forty and not very good at being at home – he’s underfoot and miserable. What I don’t like – it irritates me – is the married woman who beefs away about feminism and nags at her husband about the fact that he has the job and she doesn’t earn outside the family. Frequently she has help, frequently – we’re talking about the middle classes – the children are away at school. She beefs away about buying the groceries and this and that. Why doesn’t she get out – why doesn’t she get a job? Or if it’s that bad, why doesn’t she separate? And she doesn’t. Despite all these divorces, very few women pack in an empty marriage unless they have a replacement. And that gives me pain.

Susan Crosland: I’ve never wanted to be a man. I’ve never had penis-envy. I’ve always felt, even if I had understood it, the last thing I wanted was a penis, and now that I’ve come to understand it, I still think the last thing I want is a penis. Because of the anxiety. I suppose there are some women who get in that state of mind now over the great orgasm, but on the whole women don’t, and can have pleasure and satisfaction in different aspects of sexuality. Even the most tender relationship must have a tiny bit of anxiety in it for a man. The women can do what she likes – she can have an orgasm or not have an orgasm – she doesn’t have that anxiety.

My feeling is that the orgasm is overrated – that it’s lovely, and it’s important to have had the experience. What is most important, I think, is that the man wants the woman to have the experience, and then, if the women doesn’t have an orgasm every time, it doesn’t matter. There are other pleasures in sexuality – many – besides the big O. The key thing is that the man cares about the woman having this experience. And then, whether she actually has it time after time, is to me less important.

Susan Crosland: I don’t want to be linked with another man. I’ve had that extraordinary relationship. I’m not going to have it again. I can’t have it again; it’s not going to happen again. It’s me and my children and family. I have a number of men friends, and some very close men friends, but I don’t want these men friends to move into my house and take me over, or me to take them over. I want them out there, separate.

Tony was a remarkable man who taught me so much. He liked the company of women, which no doubt was a help. Things are perfectly obvious to me now. They weren’t then. I was very young when I met him. So, for instance, if I made some rather dismissive reference to homosexuals – I can’t think why, but I did – Tony would say, well, if you find them so repellent, you are going to have to eliminate quite a few people from your life, because at some time or another they have probably been homosexuals too, certainly at school. And this was absolutely fascinating to me. It was the first time I had anyone to teach me that we all have everything in us – from sadism to masochism, to generosity to meanness, everything in some proportion or other. That we have everything – I did not know that. I learned it largely from Tony.

In the course of my thirteen-year marriage with Tony, it developed, as it wasn’t a static relationship, and our, if you like, fantasy in part of our relationship, was always that he was the man, I was the woman, and the woman did for the man. And that kind of pleased me. I liked that, I liked that role. But it was pretend, a lot of it. We used to pretend we both enjoyed it. Then at some point, when the feminist thing was happening and began to be so drip, drip, drip, I began to think about certain things, such as why was I the one who always had to buy the petrol for the family car? It seemed frightfully important that I was the one who had to buy this petrol. This was saying that Tony’s work was more important than my work. As, indeed, it was, as a Cabinet Minister and all that in this insane country, but it became a symbol for me so, out of character, I began going on about it and making this point. And he finally took to logic and said to me, you will have to be very careful or you are going to wreck this relationship. And what I said after I thought about it was, it isn’t going to wreck this relationship, it’s like two funnels. (That’s how I visualised it – two funnels.) And one funnel has my emotional fantasy life in it with you, and the other funnel is my intellectual relationship with you, and one doesn’t impinge on the other, there is no criss-cross between them. And he said, interesting concept, interesting concept – and that was the end. After that we shared buying the petrol. I didn’t even care. It was just a symbol.

I haven’t got any experience of a virgin marriage – I was never, have never been promiscuous, but neither was I a virgin when I married my first husband. Would it have been a better marriage? I doubt it makes a lot of difference. I know people who have entered marriage as virgins and have had a happy twenty-five years so far of marriage. I find it all remarkable.

Susan Crosland: Because of the nature of women’s lives, unless they are career women and in an office, they have more time – if they are at home, which most of them are – more time to reflect and go over things in their minds. And women who are based at home tend – this is a generalization – to get things out of proportion, and therefore to be illogical, because they keep going over the thing in their mind, whereas the man puts it out of his mind. There is a sex difference here, perhaps, in that the man, in my experience, tends to go on to the next thing. He listens to what the problem is, but he doesn’t want to go on agonizing about the problem. Take a decision, that’s the end of it; go on to the next thing, go on to your office, but don’t go over and over the thing. And women, by thinking so much about a thing, actually should have cleared it up, but in fact get it out of proportion.

There you are, in your teens, with this bloody mess. I don’t like my period and I’ve never liked my period. I knew nothing about it until it happened. It was traumatic, literally traumatic, and I still don’t like my period. From the age of twelve or so, you’re dealing with the fact that you are bleeding once a month. My youngest daughter said, can you imagine how a man would feel?


It’s good to know that remedies like Lemsip and Sudafed do not relieve symptoms of head colds as previously thought of, the new NHS guidance suggests. The advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) said that there was little to no evidence that oral decongestants help those suffering from sinusitis. Those with sinus infections – characterised by a combination of stuffy noses and intense head pain – would be better off sticking with paracetamol, they said. NICE also said there is no reliable evidence that steam inhalation or warm face packs relieve symptoms.

GPs should also resist giving patients antibiotics in the majority of cases caused by viral infections. Studies suggest nine in ten of patients who visit their GPs with sinusitis-like symptoms end up being given antibiotics. Most cases clear up within two or three weeks without any treatment bar paracetamol for the relief of pain or fever, the experts from NICE added.

‘No evidence was found for using oral decongestant antihistamines – mucolytics, steam inhalation or warm face packs,’ the new guidelines state. Dr Tessa Lewis, Chairman of the Managing Common Infections Committee said, ‘Most people with sinus infections will recover in a couple of weeks without needing any antibiotics. Health professionals can help their patients cope with this infection and the sometimes unpleasant symptoms it can cause. They should tell them that they’ll probably be feeling this way for a while, and that unless they are very unwell, the best thing to do is to take paracetamol and take it easy.’

The guidance developed with Public Health England, found little evidence that saline sprays and nasal decongestants could relieve symptoms. GPS should avoid giving antibiotics unless the symptoms have lasted ten days, it says. Similarly, steroid inhalers could be considered if an illness has lingered this long.

Professor Gillian Ling, Deputy Chief Executive at NICE said: ‘Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest dangers to our health, which is why we must all work together to fight it. Our new guidance will help health care professionals to use antibiotics efficiently and only when they are really needed.’

John Smith, Chief Executive of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain which represents the manufacturers of branded over-the-counter medicines said: ‘Pain killers are an effective way to manage some of the symptoms of a sinus infection such as a headache or pain around the eyes and forehead, but decongestants can also play an important role. There is a wide range of decongestants available – both in oral and nasal form, which provides choice for the individual based on their personal preference. The guidance goes on to say that those with signs of a more serious illness, for example double vision or a severe headache, should be referred to hospital immediately.’

I honestly believe that people should avoid doctoring themselves and taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. A common cold can be highly uncomfortable but does not necessarily require a lot of medication.

Last evening saw the launch of Dynasty by Christina Oxenberg at Daunt Books in Fulham Road, London.


Here is the substance of my speech to celebrate the occasion.

Christina Oxenberg, whose book Dynasty we are proud to launch this evening, means a great deal to me.

In the mid-1980s having purchased an apartment in New York I was commuting from London on a monthly basis, acquainting myself with the great city. One of my first friends was Christina to whom I owe a great deal. She introduced me to her distinguished entourage and multiple acquaintances who made my stay in the Big Apple over the years more pleasant than I could ever have imagined. Her help and company formed the basis of my first book, Women, which Quartet published in 1987.

Christina also became a close friend of my late wife Maria and  we both followed her ascendancy in every sphere she touched including the publication in the UK of her two books, Royal Blue and Taxi which Quartet had the privilege of publishing. So the occasion tonight to honour Christina is one that I shall always remember with the sort of nostalgia one rarely encounters.

Like many others – including the actor Richard Burton – I adored Christina’s mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, whose magic presence was uniquely irresistible. On many occasions I accompanied her to receptions, which made me feel grand but undeservingly so and nevertheless extremely flattered. Naturally I understand Christina’s great attachment to this most alluring princess who happened to be her mother.

In 2014 Christina visited Serbia for the first time on the trail of her family history. What she discovered was not only the astonishing story of her roots – a descendant of the blood-soaked Karageorgevic dynasty that rose from swineherds to kings in the early nineteenth century – but also the hair-raising history of Europe and its royals. From the ascendancy of the revolutionary warrior Karageorge, who overthrew the Ottoman Empire, to the horrors of World War II, the cruel exile of Serbia’s monarchy and its long journey home, the wavering fortunes of Oxenberg’s ancestors are inextricably bound to the cultural, historical and imaginative make-up of Serbia and Eastern Europe at large.

Part memoir, part royal history – this is the intimate and passionate true story of Christina’s remarkable and illustrious Serbian heritage. Dynasty is an engrossing and at times controversial royal saga, told by a reluctant gracious princess.

Christina is worth her weight in gold and her friendship surpasses anything we are likely to encounter in a world which has gone topsy-turvy. Thank Heavens she remains a shining light for everyone who happens to know her. Christina has certainly produced a work of great quality with Dynasty so please reward her effort by purchasing as many copies of the book as you can afford and spread the good word wherever you can. She is truly our princess. I salute her and ask our enthusiastic audience to do the same. Thank you.


No Longer With Us


Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar, and aesthete. He wrote fiction, biography and autobiography. During his stay in China, he studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry, some of which, he translated.
He was born near Florence, Italy, of a prominent Anglo-Italian family. At Eton College, he was a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, before going up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. There he co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom, and mixed with many intellectual and literary figures of the age, including Evelyn Waugh, who based the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited partly on him.
Between the wars, Acton lived in Paris, London, and Florence, proving most successful as a historian, his magnum opus being a 3-volume study of the Medicis and the Bourbons. After serving as an RAF liaison officer in the Mediterranean, he returned to Florence, restoring his childhood home La Pietra to its earlier glory. Acton was knighted in 1974, and died in Florence, leaving La Pietra to New York University.


Here is the substance of an interview I did with him in 1990.

On the subject of beauty, you have written that those who philosophize most loudly and persistently about it seldom have intrinsic taste. Is beauty purely subjective?
I fear it is. In my case I’ve been privileged: born in Florence and surrounded by beautiful things with a father who was a painter and collector and whose friends were art historians, art critics. I think of Offner, whose centenary will be celebrated very soon, and Berenson, and Herbert Horne, who bequeathed his collection to Florence – his place is now a museum – and Stibbert, another Englishman who lived not far from where I do. All these men were collectors and I imbibed something of that atmosphere when I was young. There were many beautiful villas, all full of treasures. The British community was then predominant, though it’s been ebbing now for some time, ever since just before the last war. People gave up their houses and went back to live in England. I suppose that really they were scared away by fascism. Life was made very unpleasant for them by the young blackshirts, you know, so they started to retreat, to leave their lovely houses in the Italian countryside. One or two, like Lord Lambton, have in more recent times bought properties here in beautiful situations near Siena, Signa, Pistoia, all around here. In fact some parts of Tuscany are today quite Anglicized, you might say. Young English historians and art critics like John Flemming and Hugh Honour live near Luca and write well on Italian painting, and those are the few who remain. Formerly every other Englishman here was an art historian or collector or painter. It was like a kitchen of the arts.

You have said that your most valued experiences have been aesthetic. Could you elaborate?
A single visit to Florence can answer that question, though Florence is suffering from new horrors. There is an appalling lack of architectural taste today. It’s rather sad, this degradation of architecture in Italy which I don’t think applies in the same way in England. Incidentally, where England is concerned, I do think Prince Charles is very enlightened. Aren’t we lucky to have a prince who takes an interest in architecture. It’s unique. After all, architecture in England has always been very important, but lately people have closed their eyes to the horrors that have arisen in London. Prince Charles is absolutely right to point it out. Of course, good architects do exist, but Prince Charles is in revolt against the vulgarization of everything. He’s a man of taste. I don’t think the Duke of Edinburgh cares two hoots. As for the Queen, she has other things to think of.

Are there any objective, or at least non-subjective, criteria for beauty?
Yes, I think there are. The French, after all, have Versailles, and they have so many marvellous buildings which are perfectly proportioned in every sort of style. They have the classical tradition of remarkable taste, but unfortunately, as soon as the petite bourgeoisie takes over, then it becomes grotesque. French taste has gone down the drain. Even their painting is now very poor. Only think what they used to be in the eighteenth century. The whole question of taste is very difficult because taste is so personal, so private a thing, but I think that a person who has a certain classical education is entitled to some say in matters of taste. Classical education is the background. I’m afraid there is also natural bad taste, and bad taste is more general than good taste. When I see the garish, the obvious, the bright, the sexy, all of that appals, alas.

In your memoirs you say: ‘In spirit I remain a nomad, a restless and nostalgic ex-pat’. Is this still true?
The older I get the more true it seems. With age I feel that I am more devoted to travel in search of art, of international art, not limited to English or Italian. I’ve always been drawn, for instance, to Chinese art. I also like their drama, which I have translated with L. C. Arlington, and I have translated popular Chinese plays which are immensely artistic and beautiful in performance. Unfortunately China today is too different from the China I knew in the seven happy years I lived in Pecking. I have no particular yearning to return under the present regime, but all the same I’m haunted by the happy years I lived there just before the war. All the accounts that friends bring me of China today are rather depressing, but I love the country and I like the people. Wherever I went, whether in the North, to Honan and Hoonan, or all the way south to Hong Kong, I always got on well with the Chinese. I feel homesick sometimes for China, but I know it’s been transformed under Mao Tsetung. How could it be otherwise? When I was there, there were still the remains of the Imperial Manchu dynasty. I met several who were talented painters, Prince P’u Ju P’u Hsin-yu, for instance, a cousin of the ex-emperor, who was a very talented poet and painter and who I think eventually fled to Japan. I don’t expect he’s alive now, but I knew him well and his place was not far from where I had a house in Kung Hsien Hutung. He painted a portrait of me, which I haven’t got because I left everything behind in Pecking, expecting to go back after the war, but of course the revolution changed all those expectations. Instead I returned to Italy where I was born, and here I have remained: all my eggs in one basket.

You wrote about your early years: ‘I cannot remember thinking of myself as a child for I was as embarrassed by children then as I am now and whined when I was referred to as one of their species.‘
I’ve always been uncomfortable with children and they’re uncomfortable with me. I don’t know why, but I never felt at ease with children, and, of course, if you’re surrounded by works of art then you’re always terrified that they’re going to break them; and those children that I know will immediately go towards a little statue and crash!, within a moment the statue is down in smithereens on the floor. Children are very destructive, particularly English children, though I don’t think I was ever destructive as a child. I was always rather careful. I had a natural instinctive love of art and so was always extremely careful of everything in this house. I never played with the statues or the paintings I admired. Quite early in life I became attached to Italian art. I used to go to the galleries, which children would not normally do nowadays, and would feast in the Pitti and the Uffizi and the different churches of Florence. I don’t know that I could say I had a very happy nature. I enjoyed Florence, I enjoyed Italy, so when I was at school in England I was very homesick for Italy. I never settled happily in the English atmosphere. Not when I was a child, at any rate. Oxford was another matter. Those days in England were very exciting. There were the three Sitwells, for instance, all of them publishing, and reciting their poems to music composed by William Walton. They, too, had a place here in Florence at Motegufoni, a huge palatial structure about fifteen miles on the way to Siena. It was bought by Sir George Sitwell, the father, and there they stayed for many years. Sir Osbert Sitwell lived there after Sir George’s death, and continued to write, and I think his work, which is detailed and beautifully written, will be more appreciated in the future for the history of our time and the figures he knew in the arts. Sacheverell Sitwell, too, woke people up to appreciate the baroque and his book on Italian Baroque is still excellent. Of course, baroque has now come to be generally understood and appreciated, but the Sitwells were voices crying a little in advance of the present success.

Of all the literary people you knew during your Oxford days, you speak with special fondness of Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein.
Both of them in their ways were poets. Edith Sitwell is probably underestimated as a poet today, but she brought new life, new colour into the English language with Façade, set to music so beautifully by Walton. Gertrude Stein was playing pranks with the English language, but as recited by her, her portraits of human beings sounded rather imposing. Anybody who reads them, and reads them in her slow American voice, will see how they were very sharp portrayals of artists and people she knew. She was in Florence at a time when Mabel Dodge lived at the villa Curonia here, and she did a portrait that doesn’t make sense from a logical point of view but which is somehow a creative abstract portrait of Mabel Dodge. I think it is quite extraordinary how she managed it. In terms of abstract language, her portraits of people are really rather good. Nobody else has done it; she’s unique. Her first book, Three Lives, is still a rather remarkable work, not especially exciting but successful as a literary experiment.

You once said, ‘Most novels are confessions in disguise; most “confessions”, like Rousseua’s, are novels in disguise.’ Where did your poetry fit into such a scheme of things? Did you see your early poetry as confessional or were you aware that others might view it as such?
I think all poetry is confessional. It seems to me that the poet unburdens himself of his dreams, of his subconscious, and I’m sure that my poems, which I never look at nowadays, were really subconscious confessions that had to come out in one way or another. Though I’m a Roman Catholic, I don’t think they ever came out in the confessional. They had to come out in more elaborate ways and they came out in verse.

You said of writing that you wanted to pour honey from your hive, but what people wanted was gall and wormwood. Were you ever tempted to compromise?
I was never so tempted. All the poets around me, such as Auden, Spender and others whose names I forget, were left-wingers producing poems of protest. There will always be poems of protest, but poetry should take other forms, should not be limited. Poems of protest have existed since Dante, you might say, but I’m not at all politically minded, and I take the view that politics and poetry do not combine. I suppose Byron with his love of Greece was politically minded, but it is not something you find very often at the heart of the English tradition. Among Italian poets – Leopardi and Carducci- you do, but in English poetry I don’t think it’s ever that important. With the English, in poetry as in painting, it is nature that is all-important. My poetry was just colour and rhythm, and it was joyful, but as I now realize, it had no depth. It was no more than the exuberance of youth, and every young man has a poetic mood. I was just trying to express my joie de vivre, which is nothing to be ashamed of. The older I grow the more I admire the quality in other people.

You once called Cyril Connolly a treacherous Irishman on the grounds that he was a hundred per cent homosexual at school, slept with everyone, then turned against those who remained so.
Well, Connolly was personally antipatico to me. He laid down the law, a little dictator surrounded by yes-sayers, all of whom agreed with him, though it also has to be said that he did a good job editing the magazine Horizon. When we were contemporaries at Eton I used to get very irritated with his dictatorial manner. He was rather a bully, and he was entirely homosexual, then he changed over to the women and never stopped. He discovered the girls rather late in life, and then it was one after another. A treacherous Irishman is what he was, and I didn’t care much for him.

You sometimes make Eton sound a like one of the ‘cities of the plain’.
Oh, no. It was the most innocent place. No cities of the plain there. In fact a sharp eye was kept on the morals of the Etonians by the housemasters, so they could not stray, though I suppose subconsciously there was a good deal of homosexuality.

Your friendship with Evelyn Waugh spanned many years. Did you admire him as a man and writer equally?
I admired his writing far more than I admired his character, but he was a delightful, warm-hearted, hot-tempered personality such as you rarely find today. He was a man of extreme views and a convert to Catholicism, and a passionate convert at that, which is also rather rare nowadays. He was a deeply religious person, but his gifts were not really in the most serious vein. His gifts were humorous and I think his best novels are the least serious. For instance, Decline and Fall, dedicated to myself, is still I think one of the most brilliant of English light novels. He got a little more serious towards the end, and he lost somehow the light touch, so rare in English literature. Not many people have that light touch. Evelyn Waugh was a master of prose as well; he wrote very good English. That’s another thing that is rare nowadays: good, sound, logical English. I wouldn’t say Waugh was depressing as a person. He was rather more depressed than depressing because he saw the way the world was going and it didn’t appeal to him at all. But he had a heart of gold and I was really very fond of him. I was best man at his first wedding, a marriage which went badly, alas. I’m afraid he married a rather superficial lady who flirted with others and he couldn’t stand it. He was very old-fashioned, expected his wife to be loyal and faithful to him. He couldn’t stand the strain of her going off on her own. He was a proud man and he was very loyal as a friend. We stayed friends till the day he died and he’s one of the few friends I’ve never quarrelled with. I’m also a friend of his son Bron. Towards the end of his life, Evelyn became a kind of recluse, except that he loved his family, and loved to be in the company of his devoted wife, surrounded by his children. He didn’t care to join literary societies, but liked to stand on his own. He was independent. There’s too much nowadays of congregating in these literary societies, of people blowing their own trumpets, but Evelyn was dignified about all of that.

It has been said that characters in Brideshead Revisited are based on your own character. Do you find the idea flattering or provoking?
I think it is very flattering, but I don’t recognize any character in Brideshead connected with myself. He’s taken little traits from me in one of the characters, certain physical traits so that people confuse me sometimes with that particular character, but I don’t think it was in his mind. A novelist has to take everything in his experience and use it. That’s why we respond. If we felt a novelist’s work was false, we wouldn’t admire it, unless his fiction were absolutely farcical and fantastic, and Evelyn’s is only farcical up to a certain degree. There is seriousness underlining all his fiction.

Max Beerbohm and Somerset Maugham seem to have belonged in quite separate worlds, but you knew the both. Were they at all alike?
They were not very alike, except that they belonged to the same period in a sense, Beerbohm being very much a figure of the 1890’s, a sort of dandy of that era who survived into the present century. Maugham, too, had all the mannerisms of a man of the nineteenth century: very formal and living in the South of France in sumptuous splendour. He was not a modern; he didn’t really change with the century. He had this stutter, poor man,vwhich only vanished on certain occasions. When he had to speak in public he stopped stammering, but in private life it was embarrassing because he took a long time to come out with any sentence. Pathetic. He used to stay here next to us before he went to the South of France. As for being an admirer of his writing, I would have to answer yes and no. I don’t think he’s a first-rate novelist. Of Human Bondage is a book that will last, and there are a lot of things he wrote that exactly struck the mood of the moment.

Is there any foundation in the rumour of a rift between you and Gore Vidal?
It’s a fabrication. He’s not exactly one of my heroes, far from it, but he is in a way a very amiable young man, though very naïve. He thinks himself sophisticated, but he’s really very simple. If there’s any disagreement, it’s entirely on his side not mine. I live, as you see, in a totally different atmosphere. He was in Rome, I think, for a time, used to turn up here occasionally, but I have very little in common with him. He’s not an aesthete, not by any means. The arts don’t mean much to him. He’s an embryo politician and all his ambitions are towards the Senate in the United States. He’s a fish out of water here in Florence. We have never quarrelled on my side. On his, I do believe he bears me ill-will. I’m very sorry for it because to me he is just like an American sophomore. I can’t take him seriously as a writer.

You have dismissed most English novelists as preachers who mistake their vocation.
Lately they have tended to preach less. I don’t think, for instance, that Somerset Maugham was much of a preacher and the Bloomsbury writers, Virginia Woolf – or even Aldous Huxley – did not preach much. But the Victorians were eminently preachers. If you pick out any Victorian novelist, you find they have a tendency to speak from a pulpit, to address an imaginary public. If I were to have my reading confined to one English novelist I should say Dickens because I think he was a man of overall breadth of view and knowledge of society. Though his language is very dated, it is vey vital English. As you read him you are still living in a sort of Victorian present. Thackery is also remarkable, but I feel he is more of the past. I don’t feel he is as alive as Dickens is today. As for the English being a literary nation, I find the claim exaggerated. I fear they’re not literary. They do not buy literary works, they want something different. Nowadays it’s sex, sex and lively fashion magazines. The stress of modern life drives them to the frivolous by contrast, it seems to me.

On the subject of religion, you write that the Protestant faith has much misery to answer for. Why single out the Protestant faith?
I think it could be said of many religions, but as a Roman Catholic I remain firm in seeing all around me in this country how religion lives among the people and how it is the inspiration, the joy and the philosophy of the Italians that has kept them going for centuries. I feel a stronger Catholic here than anywhere else, though it is always a delight, a joy to me when I got to England to find out that Westminster Cathedral is full. I can’t say I’m deeply religious, but I believe religion is essential to us and that without it we lose our bearings. It is extremely important for us to have a faith if we’re fortunate enough. I cannot imagine being without faith, I cannot imagine the purpose of life in that case. After a good long life, my faith is stronger than ever. My belief is in the Church and in our wonderful Pope. I have the greatest admiration for him. He is a heroic man. I’m very happy to have been with a Polish squadron during the war. They were all deeply religious: heroic boys, but deeply pious. If you went to Mass in Blackpool it was all Poles at that time. They sang beautifully, and in their voices you could hear their faith ringing out. It was quite splendid, an inspiration, and wherever I’ve been – even in India – the Catholics were always far more vocal that the Protestants. I wouldn’t want to make any sort of comparison, but it was a great inspiration. There’s only a one faith for me. It’s in the Church of Rome. Of course the Pope is a traditionalist. The Church is traditional, it has to be. We can’t revolutionize what Our Lord has preached in the past, we can’t change his words. I freely admit, though, that I was saddened by the abandonment of the Tridentine rite. The strength of the Church is in the old Tridentine.

Do you believe in sin?
I believe rather in weakness than in sin, though certain politicians make me believe seriously in sin. If one turns to politics, one has to admit that there are evil people about.

Can you think of any really honest and straightforward politicians?
I remember at Oxford how the young men who were going in for politics and the Union were very shallow, very superficial. They were only ambitious for themselves. I stayed aloof from all those brilliant geniuses who were passing all their exams with top marks, double firsts and all that, then disappearing into the House of Commons. We’ve heard nothing from them since. Those with the biggest reputations at that time have vanished. Roger Hollis is still known, perhaps, though he was a scandalous fellow, a traitor. I also met Guy Burgess, but I prefer to forget him. A boorish sort of fellow, not an intellectual. He was nothing. I don’t know why people talked about him. He had a talent for making noise, that’s all. Speaking of politicians, I did admire Churchill. He was an outstanding person who also wrote well. He was enlightened, the sort of universal man who can be admired anywhere in the world. He was a great draughtsman and he could also paint. Some of his earlier work will endure, I’m sure, but then he became experimental. The desire is always to be young, always to experiment, always just to beget children has been, in my view, a great loss in art. Instead of clinging to his own natural talent for beautiful draughtsmanship and colour, Churchill turned his back on his talent, and, like several other painters today, though they don’t realize it, was led astray by the critics. I think the wish to be modern at all costs, to alarm, to shock, to startle is the trouble, whereas great painters in the past were not thinking about startling anybody, they were just devoted to their vision and to trying to interpret it in a way others could share. I don’t believe anybody can share the vision of Picasso, or even Matisse. The political animal is something very foreign to me, though, because I have lived in a world of aesthetics, of love of the arts, which it seems to me is natural to anybody born in Europe. Although a good many Englishmen born here were not as interested in the arts as you might expect, generally speaking all the English who were here had one foot in the art world.

Did you ever live in Italy under fascism?
The atmosphere was too unpleasant for me, so that was when I went off to China. But whenever I came back in those years I could feel this rather unpleasant atmosphere of coercion, and many of my English friends sympathised with fascism, thinking it very splendid and dramatic. It’s hard to believe now, but they were taken in by the show, by the theatrical element. My parents were here under fascism. I paid them a visit and found the atmosphere very bellicose at that time. It wasn’t something that could be said of the Italians in general, because they were peace-loving and didn’t want war at all, but the people one met – journalists, writers – were all very bellicose and attracted to Nazism. The Germans had tremendous influence. My parents were both in prison for a short time before getting away to Switzerland. Eventually I felt I couldn’t sit there in Pecking any longer, enjoying life while Britain was at war. I had to do my duty in some way and so went back to England and joined the RAF. I didn’t fly because my vision and my age were against me – I was already in my thirties. They took me because of my knowledge of Chinese and things Oriental after living in China for seven years. The war was also by then being fought in the Far East, and so I was sent off there after a period at various air stations to pick up the methods. I was in Intelligence, so called. The people I met were all very brilliant, but I never give those years a thought today. Now that I’m eighty-five years old, it’s strange to think of how I was once restricted to air stations in England as an interrogating Intelligence officer, listening to the crews who had been bombing Germany when they arrived back absolutely worn out from their sorties.

Have you ever been a romantic?
I’ve been an admirer of Schiller, of the romantics, and so on. I think we’ve all gone through a romantic phase, particularly in youth.

Did you ever fall in love?
Oh, yes, I think we all did, but I suppose I haven’t got the depth of character to fall desperately in love, like so many of my friends. No, I never had that. I suppose I must be a cold-blooded fish, really – more mental than physical. Certainly it occurred to me to marry. I was proposed to many times, but I lived in China then and it would have been very inconvenient. I liked to be an independent bachelor in Pecking, having my choice of friends and of girl-friends. I preferred my freedom. I’m happy now. I’m an old bachelor, but I don’t suffer from solitude. I sometimes regret that I never chose such and such a person, but I have many particularly good friends here. I spent a long time with a Chinese woman, which was a very happy time, except when I had to leave, of course, but you couldn’t continue for ever. It was a rewarding relationship. The Chinese have such an exquisite old civilisation and Chinese women have a wonderful instinct for affection. They’re warm hearted, and I love everything about their figures: very graceful and unhairy. I don’t like a lot of hair, so they appealed to me. If I had married I would have married a Chinese. So I was living with a Chinese girl for many years, and happily because I was never disturbed; no scenes, no jealousy, nothing of that sort. They had another tempo. With an Italian woman it would be a series of scenes and life would become impossible. I know, because I have so many Italian friends. I never felt any regret at the lack of an heir. I’m leaving everything to the New York University. I don’t think Oxford would look after it properly, and anyway, they haven’t got the money. I offered it all to Oxford first, but met with such little response that I changed my mind. So everything goes to New York University and they will take the villa over and use it as a centre for Italian studies. My father didn’t like the idea at all. I discussed it with him before he died and he, of course, would have preferred me to marry and have children, but I never had that desire. I never had a feeling for children and family. Even my mother didn’t have much of a feeling of that kind, and I think she agreed with me fundamentally. She always preferred the place to be lived in by people who appreciated the arts.

Do you feel you had to forsake the pleasures of the flesh for the sake of the art, or can the two go together?
They can go together, of course, but the pleasures of the flesh were very small in my case. They are an important part of life, but they didn’t dominate so many people. Talking of Maughan, he was always in the hands of some dreadful creature. Gerald Hackston, for instance, who dominated him, or his wife, whom he hated. In my case I have nothing of that sort, thank God. No hatreds. I feel I have chosen wisely to be my own master and to leave everything to a university that can enjoy and use it. After all, Florence will continue to be the capital of the arts. It’s bound to be. It always has been since the Medici.

Have you ever been attracted to erotic art?
As a juvenile I was rather interested in certain Beardsley drawings and others appealed to me. I still think Beardsley is a very good draughtsman, but on the whole I think that art should rise above the erotic.

How do you see the relationship between art and morality? Presumably the two can never be separated?
Many artists have been considered deeply immoral. Art is to me beyond morality. If you start moralizing then art disappears. It becomes a sort of preaching.

Throughout your memoirs you display an irritation with the contempt of critics, especially for art critics.
I think that many art critics are would-be painters. They are disappointed and frustrated and consequently their frustration is brought out in their criticism of others. That’s my opinion, particularly in England where many of the critics I have known personally have been painters on the sly who have had no success and no chance of success and consequently have been bitter about others. I am afraid it is a weakness of human nature to be like that, but it is a sad thing that most of the critics are failed painters. Literary critics are larger, broader. I’m not capable of judging, for instance, modern poetry, because I’m rather indifferent to what I see in the way of poetry today, but on the whole I consider that our literary critics are excellent. I read the Spectator every week with pleasure for its admirable, clear, well-written criticism. It’s an excellent journal, and the New Statesman and others of high quality compare well with any publication of the past. The late Victorian publications seem rather heavy-going now if we try to look through them, but still they contain very good criticism.

Are scholarly work and critical explanations the most helpful ways of making art available?
No. I don’t think people pay much attention to the critics. The critics don’t possess much weight any longer. In the days of Ruskin, of course, it was quite different.

What about Bernard Shaw?
He was a very loud, able and brilliant critic, but I think he was sometimes deeply inhuman. I met him once at a public meeting. He had a most beautiful voice and great charm of manner, there’s no doubt about it, but I think he was fundamentally a eunuch. I don’t think he had any sex. That’s my own private view. He was married, of course, but I don’t think he was a marrying man. He was all brain and, in spite of the beard, I don’t think he was very virile. At least, that was my own personal impression. Why inhuman? Well, I think that of people entirely given to politics and the stage and boosting themselves. He was a tremendous egocentric, the best propogandist for himself that ever was.

You say of Charles Loeser: ‘He would question every object d’art until it vouchsafed an answer.; What sort of an answer, and in what way does one question an objet d’art? You go on to speak of the way Loeser would interpret a great master’s drawing. What is it to interpret a drawing?
Oh dear, very difficult. Loeser had an impeccable eye. He was one of the first people to collect Cezanne and he used to tell his servants or his ignorant cook to come in, and he would ask them, ‘Do you feel that is a landscape?’ And they’d say, ‘Si, si.’ ‘My cook knows more about it than I do,’ he would say. ‘She has the eye, she is unspoilt, untutored. I am unfortunately a Harvard graduate with too much education to be able to see properly.’ Of course, he was exaggerating, but still, there was a certain amount of truth in it. He was a very original man.
At the beginning of your memoirs you write: ‘Peace and goodwill towards men will only be brought about by individuals like myself.’ Can you elaborate?
It’s a very conceited statement. I’m rather shocked that I ever wrote it. But I think that people like us, who are only interested in culture and history, do perhaps a little more for the general public than is recognized and yet we are dismissed by journalists as decorative people on the fringe. In fact we influence people far more than they’re ready to admit. That’s my opinion.

It sometimes seems that high art must necessarily be a restricted pleasure. Do you think the taste of the connoisseur can ever really coincide with the larger, more democratic taste, if you like?
I can’t coincide, but it’s a guide. The connoisseur must guide taste and most people pay attention to the connoisseur when they know he’s genuine. They may laugh at him to begin with, but they follow. They laughed at Whistler, but his ‘Ten O’Clock Lecture’ is a wonderful piece of prose, quite apart from the fact that the message had a great influence.

What do you think an aesthetic emotion is? Is it really distinguishable form other sorts of feelings?
Oh, yes. It’s the most difficult thing to put into words. Aesthetic emotions require a Walter Pater, who wrote his book on the Renaissance with great difficulty over many years. It was a product of careful thought, and we cannot suddenly express that in a few words. Think of the aesthetic philosophers in Germany and in Italy. They are rather long winded and obscure, and it’s very difficult to tone that down to the level of popular understanding. Very difficult – though I think that the average person confronted with a great statue can tell the difference between that and, say, the sort of abstract stuff that is supposed to be a statue now. I think the average man or woman in England can respond immediately to a genuine work of art, a find Niobe or an Apollo and Marsyas. I think it is extraordinary that the public tolerates the sort of thing that I see very often being put up in London. In my day we’d have tarred and feathered those statues, but they’ve even spread to Italy. It’s a blight.

Some literary artists like Oscar Wilde and T.S Eliot have seemed to allow art to border on the trivial by saying that all art is useless, as Wilde did, or by calling it a superior entertainment, as Eliot did. What are your feelings about this?
I think they’re both very mistaken. I think art is an essential to civilized life, to our private existence. I cannot conceive of an existence without art. But alas, in many places, in industrial cities in the North of England, people manage to live without it very well, but still it’s a severe loss to them. If they had beautiful things to look at, it would inspire them to do even better work. But art in England has always been a small group of people, wealthy, old families with an interest in painting or architecture. It’s never been open to the masses, unfortunately, and we have suffered accordingly.

You quote Andrew Marvell’s lines, ‘My love is of a birth so rare/ As ‘tis for the object strange and high,/It was begotten by Despair/ Upon Impossibility.’ Why did these lines seem to you to explain the otherwise inexplicable?
Marvell was a man of profound vision and of deep spirituality which is rare in the poetry of that period. But it seems to me that these lines are modern and can convey that twilight of the consciousness which is so seldom expressed nowadays.

Over the centuries many hundreds of men and women have devoted their lives to music or painting and dance. Does such a devotion in itself give value to their art?
Certainly. It must give value to their art, if they are devoted in the real, true sense of the word. Pavlova, until she was quite old, was still dancing. I remember seeing her when she was about to retire. She was still the most graceful sylph-like figure one could possibly dream of. She was exquisite, and that’s a triumph of art.

You record in your memoirs the fate of works of art at the hands of the Germans in Florence. You describe, for example, an ‘Adoration of the Magi’ being used as a tablecloth and stabbed with a knife. At the same time you praise the Germans and say that in courage and fortitude they were certainly our peers. Why did they behave so badly, do you think?
Well, unfortunately, that’s a sort of racial thing that they have inherited: the rough, primitive instincts which have been glorified by certain great geniuses like Wagner. Wagner glorifies the coarsest instincts in The Ring. It’s a sign of strength they feel, this great love of their own strength, their own power. It’s quite a good thing in a way from the point of view of art, because that is the way good art is produced, but also, alas, bad art.

Why do you think that art seems not to affect people’s behaviour as one might hope? Both the Germans and the Japanese seem to have been capable of terrible savagery concurrently with an appreciation of the subtlest effects of art.
That’s a very strange point, yes. The Japanese can certainly be split personalities. I’ve never quite understood their Buddhism; it’s not like the Buddhism of the Indians, not contemplative. Everything that they do has got to be active in a hysterical sort of way. They are very peculiar, the Japanese, very peculiar people. The women in Japan, I should say, are superior to the men. They are people of very refined taste: the way they dress, the way they paint, the poems they write. Many of the best novels written in Japan are written by women, such as The Tale of Genji. The Japanese are full of surprises, because the women are so refined and elegant and the men fundamentally so crude and rough. They believe strongly in virility, of course, and virility is mixed up with militarism. They occupied Peking when I was there and behaved appallingly. I have no great love of the Japanese male. It’s very difficult to say anything definite about Germans because they are so different from each other. Germany’s a land of individualists. People think that they are all together, all followers of Bismark, Hitler or whatever it is, but they’re not. Germans are strongly individual characters. You can see that in their music, in their philosophy, in their works of art.

The journey to your home in Tuscany has become a kind of pilgrimage for many. Are you happy to end your days in Florence, or do you ever feel like coming home?
I was born here, so my home is here. I feel Florentine and I’m an honorary citizen of Florence, and all my life-long friends, my closest associations are with Florentines. I left for China because of fascismo and China was my next love, but of course in view of what’s happened there, its worse even that facismo was here. So I could never think of going back or living as I did in Peking in a private house, surrounded by Chinese.

What was it that drew you into China initially? You say you felt strangely at home there.
I always loved Chinese art. The Chinese written character is in itself a very beautiful thing, a work of art, and their cooking is a very important element in civilization. I think people who feed well are on the side of the angels. It’s very important that people should eat decent food, properly cooked, and the Chinese do. It’s strongly in their favour. And their poetry is sung. When I was there, they would sing their poems. The effect was so very striking. Unlike our poets. We can hardly say that they sing.

I understand that the Chinese do not distinguish between an original work of art and an exact copy. Is that the best approach?
Their tradition is so strong that they go on painting in the same style as they did in the fifteenth century. Landscape artists, for instance, continue to paint in the style of the fifteenth-century Ming Dynasty. It may be a sort of limitation to talent. I don’t think that always remaining so traditional is such a good thing. The great artists have always broken with tradition. Turner, for instance, with his billowing seas and all that, broke with the tradition of the eighteenth-century landscape in his landscapes. That’s the way art should be: alive. Start with the tradition, but then break it; rules have got to be broken.

How can we really enter into the appropriate frame of reference to allow us to respond properly to work in an alien tradition, like that of China?
I feel there’s too much emphasis on the word alien. I think it’s exaggerated. A Chinese artist can appreciate a drawing by Michelangelo and Michelangelo would appreciate a good landscape by some eighteenth-century Chinese. Art is a republic, not monarchy.

Writing about China, you say: ‘Behind the broad main streets were networks of alleys, rather slummy, with their mounds of refuse and mongrel dogs.’ Did you not find this public indifference distressing?
The back streets were full of families all living together, crowded, but not really squalid, because they had a certain dignity. The Chinese lived in a very agreeable way. I wouldn’t have minded joining one of those households.

You also record that in the average year, 29, 000 corpses, the bodies of over-worked young mill-workers, were gathered on the streets. Didn’t your knowledge of this interfere with your admiration of China?
I think all countries have something of that kind, you know. It’s not publicized, but I think it’s not so extraordinary. It happens everywhere.

Do you think there is anything left in Communist China of what originally drew you to the country?
The landscape remains, and they have protected a good many of their old monuments, I imagine, and from what I hear the Forbidden City in Peking remains the same. But the spirit perhaps has gone, as people are unified by Marxism. I can’t believe that that suits the Chinese, not the Chinese I knew, who were very independent and individual. But I never think of China now. I try not to think of it because I was extremely happy there and saw it couleur de rose.

What is it like to smoke opium?
I never became and addict, but I occasionally joined a Chinese friend and smoked a pipe and very much enjoyed it. It seemed to clear my mind and allowed me to forget about the tiresome irritations of life. I found it soothing. And I think that the danger of opium is grossly exaggerated. I have known many people who have smoked it for years who are now old, and yet in spite of their age are flourishing.

You give an account of a visit to an astrologer in Calcutta. Do you, or did you, believe in such things?
Oh, yes. I believe in these things. I don’t begin to understand it, but that it exists and that it has existed for centuries and is very strong in India there is no doubt at all. I feel that the Indians have got another sense for astrology which we lack here. Our lives are so different from theirs in that way. We can’t keep pace with that strange other-world-liness.

You wrote that a book of memoirs should concentrate on all that is vital and attempt to recapture the moments of exultation and delight. Is there no place for a recollection of sadder times?
I don’t think that sadness adds to other people’s vitality, and I’m all in favour of vitality. The sad, the gloomy, the depressing are life-diminishing, and I’m for the life-enhancing. So much is life-diminishing nowadays that we must return to the National Gallery and the Louvre to refresh ourselves. In all our lives we have had sad, not to say tragic times, especially during the world wars. One is surrounded by tragedy, but man is helpless against that sort of tragedy. I would say I have been fortunate in my own life. I’ve been privileged to live here in Florence in a fifteenth-century villa with a garden surrounded by statues by well-known sculptors. If I were unhappy it would be a crime. But I do have a horror of death, an absolute horror of it. I enjoy life so much that I would really not welcome death at all. So many friends of mine commit suicide or threaten it. I just don’t understand. Life is so wonderful, there’s so much more to discover. We’re given these blessings, and living here in Florence I’d be mad to wish to die. I don’t consider my work to be of much importance, but I don’t think I have done yet what I have it in me to do, which is to write a good short story. But if I were to live my life again, I think I would do the same thing again. I would write, I would edit magazines at Oxford. I don’t think I could have chosen another path. My only regret is that I didn’t write better, that I haven’t done more with a flow imagination. But you can’t force that. It is something you are born with. Otherwise I have nothing but thankfulness for the life I have enjoyed.

What fortifies you nowadays against life’s disappointments?
It’s a very difficult question, but with age I enjoy the beauty of landscapes, scenery and architecture more perhaps than ever, and that keeps me alert and optimistic in my outlook, but otherwise I’m afraid I don’t really enjoy the present moment. It’s only through art that I exist: through my love of the arts. I have no belief of any kind in my genius. No, that is a part of youth. In youth we’re all geniuses. When one is young one has a spirit, but it grows rather feeble as the years pass. Now I find myself rather disappointed with life. I suppose that is a part of creeping age, of getting feebler with the years and becoming mentally not quite so alert. I don’t really feel so buoyant as I used to. I used to be very active, particularly when I was at Oxford, editing Oxford Poetry and surrounded by very talented poets like Peter Quennell and Robert Graves, and a great many distinguished dons like Beazley, the greatest authority on Greek vases in the world, and Gow on the plough, famous also as a Greek scholar. It seemed like a Renaissance when I was at Oxford, but the Renaissance didn’t last.