Monthly Archives: March 2018

Heavy Years

Last night we celebrated the launch of Heavy Years by Augustus Young at the Master’s Room, The Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square London W1CN 3AT.


In the course of the evening , and as his publisher I said a few words about the event to encourage people to purchase the book and make the author and Quartet content and appreciative.

Here is my short address in full.

Firstly, may I welcome you all to this celebration of James’s new book – or should I use his pen name? Quartet has never published a pseudonym before and I’m not quite sure of the etiquette.

But as an imprint with a proud record over forty years of publishing the very best literature, I’m thrilled to welcome James or Augustus to our stable, for its time Augustus Young gets the recognition his remarkable writing deserves.

Most of us here, I presume, already appreciate his humane, unique, sly humour and totally agree with the Irish Times comparing his 2002 iconic autofiction, Light Years, on a par with Flann O’Brian. I am convinced Heavy Years has all the same qualities.

Written with razor-sharp wit and a keen eye for the absurd, Heavy Years is a beguiling work which cuts through the chaos of the late twentieth-century NHS, one of Britain’s most cherished and controversial institutions. The unnamed narrator has his own agenda; simply put, that public health and well-being should be the foundation on which politics is built, not a tool of political machinations. However, he soon realises good sense and a lifelong interest in philosophy are not enough to challenge the Kafkaesque inner workings of the NHS, and he finds himself increasingly absorbed into the status quo.
But that’s enough from me, apart from urging you all to buy as many copies as you can afford, to spread the good word, and it is with both pride and pleasure that I introduce this remarkable author and his gem of a book.

No Longer With Us


Denis Forman was born in Scotland in 1917-2013 and educated at Loretto and Pembroke College, Cambridge. During the war he served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, being wounded at Cassino in 1944. His war experiences are recounted in To Reason Why, which appeared in 1991. After the war he began producing films for the Central Office of Information and in 1948 he became a director of the National Film Institute. He was the inspiration behind the establishment of National Film Theatre before joining Granada Television in 1964. His latest book, Persona Granada (1997), charts the history of Granada Television of which he was chairman form 1974-87. His interest in music culminated in his directorship of the Royal Opera House and in his books, Mozart’s Piano Concertos and The Good Opera Guide.


Here is the substance of an interview I did with him in 1996.

In your reminiscences you describe how two people inhabited the one person. One was perplexed and often unhappy, the other was extrovert and charming. Do these two people still co-exist?

Over the years they’ve become familiar with each other and although they haven’t moulded into one person, they are much less dissimilar than they used to be in the early days.

You grew up in a prosperous Scottish family with all the trappings of the upper class – nannies, under-nurses, afternoon tea, servant halls, and so on, yet you never really felt comfortable…

No, I was not happy with the upstairs life. The top part of the house in which I grew up was the nursery, and there were eight children, six brothers and sisters and two adopted, and they made up one community, one culture. On the ground floors were the grown ups, people who were remote and a bit pompous, people we didn’t really know very well, and below that were the servants. These three cultures co-existed, but my favourite culture was the servants; I preferred them to the noisy nursery and the posh middle floor.

Did that remain the case as you grew older?

I’ve always had a strong prejudice against well-bred, aristocratic people. It takes a lot for me to get over the fact that a man’s been to Eton. I really have to struggle to like a man who has been to Eton. That has stayed with me all my life, and the upper-class accent is something that sets my teeth on edge, and when I hear the royals speak I have to close my ears.

Do you think you were born with an innate sense of independence, as it were? The structures of your upbringing were so firm it’s difficult to see how you could have questioned them and rejected them so completely without a strong freedom of spirit…

It was more that I refused to accept any convention, any received wisdom, or indeed any view if I had not convinced myself that it was sane and sensible. This came about by reading. My father, who had been a clerk in holy orders, had a huge library of theology and amongst this was an encyclopaedia of ethics. I found in my reading that most of the Christian ethics were actually remnants of tribal beliefs which had been going on for thousands and thousands of years. If the tribal beliefs were no longer thought to be valid, I couldn’t see why the hell Christianity should still be thought to be valid, and I was very firm on this from an early age, from about twelve or thirteen. I found that the Christian religion was unacceptable.
Did this apply to all religions?

It was particularly the self-confident religions, including the whole of Islam, which I found unacceptable. And because I grew up with Christianity, and people were always praying or talking about God or giving you a lecture, Christianity was on the doorstep all the time, and that made it worse. Hinduism and Buddhism seemed more tolerant, more agreeable, and I loved the Greek myths. I thought they had the right way to treat gods – that was the proper place for them.

Looking back, do you feel grateful that you had something to rebel against?

I suppose it served a purpose. It made me self-reliant and you also have to have a great deal of stamina and courage, if you’re going to rebel and stick to it, because you make yourself exceedingly unpopular. Nobody likes a rebel who contradicts their deepest and most dearly held beliefs. I mean, I loved my mother and father, I loved my brothers and sisters, and to offend them so deeply was not easy, but it seemed to me I had to do it.

Were you the only rebellious member of the family?

I was the first, but one by one they dropped off the perch. By the time they were mature people there was perhaps only one out of the eight who still believed in God. It wasn’t particularly my influence – they were sensible people and they came to their own conclusions.

In many ways you rebelled against the things you also loved best. Was it painful to you that you couldn’t enjoy the circumstances of your childhood – the countryside, the privileges – without the evocation of class which they entailed?

Actually I had a great capacity for enjoyment, especially with the servants and my brothers and sisters. My deep disquiet with the upper class didn’t in any way inhibit me from having a happy childhood. I just cut myself off from the nonsense that was going on upstairs.

So did you in fact enjoy the privileges of your upbringing?

I took them for granted; all children do. I knew there were poor people, but I absolutely never questioned the fact that we had a lot of cars and ponies and servants. That was just the life we led.

It struck me when reading your memoirs that many people would have given anything to have the advantages of your childhood, not just in material terms but in the sense of it not being banal. At least your parents discussed the nature of sin, the problem of evil…in other words, it can’t have been dull. Have you thought of it in that way?

Yes. One of the great advantages of being brought up in our household was the constant debate on every topic – music, poetry, literature. My grandmother in particular was a great taster of new novels. She read all the brilliant new novels that came out, although every now and then she would reject one because the characters were too disreputable. Music was always a subject which was very close to everyone’s interest, and of course religion was always being debated. I didn’t care for that so much, but the debate itself was good fun. All my life I have enjoyed debate, even though I’m very often arguing a case I don’t really feel very strongly.

Your feeling of being different from those in the outside world was developed fairly early on. Has this sense of being different from others continued throughout your life?

There are of course different ways of being different. The fact that I am a Scotsman born and bred has given me a particular view of the English whom I still see as a foreign race. I have worked with Jews a lot in my life, and I see them as a race for whom I have more affection and with whom I have more affinity than the English. I have never been able to tolerate the top class English very easily. During my upbringing I formed a very close association with working people, and I still feel that they are the basic human ingredient in life, those people who worked on the farm in Dumfriesshire. Subconsciously, I think I measure important people, rich people, clever people, against that inbred feeling that the farm workers really were the guys I liked.

You say you sometimes felt ashamed for not liking your father better, especially when everyone else thought him such a decent chap. Why did he disappoint you so much?

That is a very fundamental question about fathers and sons. He was a decent chap, but he was also unconscious of the fact that he was treating his wife as if she were a second-class person. He behaved towards his family as if he were the major general and they were all private soldiers, and he treated the outside world very often as would a public relations man. He was extremely good at ingratiating himself with certain kinds of visitors, churchmen, for example, and within his own orbit he was very well thought of. In my home town even today, they speak of my father with great affection. But there was a very firm code of conduct which you could not break.

What sort of father would you have chosen for yourself?

I think I would have chosen a more open-minded and better educated father. I would have liked a father who was prepared to discuss and debate on equal terms with me, not simply hand down received wisdom and tell me it was true. There was no interplay, only commands from on high. One of the awful things, of course, is sending children to boarding school, a terrible thing to do. It emphasises the fact that father and mother are home, but you have to leave and get educated. I don’t like that.

You described attendance at the United Free Church as the greatest penance of the week. Why do you think you reacted so much against it when for most children it was a normal part of growing up in Scotland?

Two reasons. One was that I’m very susceptible to boredom; I can’t stand being bored, and I bore very easily. I regard it as the greatest penance in life. I’ve done a great deal to enquire into what makes a bore, because I find it a very interesting and underdeveloped study. The other reason was that what the minister said in his sermon was such rubbish, and he said it with such unction and with such certainty that I found it deeply offensive. But I couldn’t tell him. I just had to sit there and take it.

Your atheism caused quite a stir in the family. Have you ever had doubts about your atheism, if I can put it that way?

Never, no. It’s the foundation of my belief and thought. One of the great regrets for mankind is the delusion of religion; it’s done so much harm, it’s caused so many wars, so much hardship, so much intolerance. Even today one of the greatest threats is Islam. Many of the religions are running out of steam, which is good, and of course even though people get married in church and bury their fathers in the church graveyard, their actual faith is very weak. They pretend, but there is a lot of hypocrisy.

Do you think as you grow older you might change your mind about religion?

No, I don’t. I’m completely comfortable with the thought of dying, although one always hopes for a fairly peaceful and orderly exit. I mean, I have seen rabbits die, I have seen horses die, and I’ve seen men die; I think they cease to exist, and that’s it. It is a very deep human instinct to try and pretend there’s an after-life, because it’s consoling and people don’t like to think they’re going to be rubbed out. But they will; they will be rubbed out completely.

Was your lack of belief just another kind of challenge to your parents or was it a separate thing?

I think it was self-generated. I used to count all these messiahs who preceded Jesus Christ – there were seventeen of them – and I used to look at the incidence of virgin birth in other religions, and also crucifixion – the rarest of the lot – but nevertheless it was there. All the great phenomena of the Christian religion which are treated with such enormous respect are duplicated in other religions. People want it that way, therefore they believe in it. I’ve never been able to understand, for example, why people think God is good, but people want God to be good and so they believe in the goodness of God.

The effect of your lack of faith was quite traumatic for your parents, especially your mother. Did you come to regret that you hadn’t pretended to have faith, for her sake?

At the time I was deeply upset, but I felt it was inevitable. Sooner or later you have to come clean on issues that you really don’t feel it’s right to conceal, and I don’t think I regretted telling my parents what I did. Perhaps the way I did it was not very elegant; it certainly took them a long time to come back to having an affection for me. It really wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and was wounded that I rediscovered a warmth between my parents and myself. It took ten years.

Is there any way that the Presbyterian ethic had endured, albeit against your will, or have you managed comprehensively to reject it?

Many of the Presbyterian habits have afflicted or assisted me through life. For example, it took me a long time to throw the sexual taboos off. I felt guilty when indulging in any form of sex, and that was due to an upbringing which was extremely prudish, indeed to a degree you simply wouldn’t believe. On the positive side, the Presbyterian upbringing gave me a certain degree of stamina in thought. In the Scots Kirk you have to argue a thing through, even though it’s a ridiculous argument. That probably did assist me in later life to stick to a point of argument. The Presbyterian work ethic has bugged me all my life too; I find it very difficult not to work.

You say that by the age of nine you had reacted against the smugness of pure faith. Are you still reacting against that today?

Well, of course that smug attitude has diminished. It was prevalent in the Church of England, and also in the Church of Scotland – the idea that we ministers are superior people, we are God’s chosen people, we are here to tell you how to behave. Today the Church of England is grovelling around to curry favour with pop stars, so it has rather lost its smugness, not to mention its dignity. In my view, it is a little despicable the way they try to snatch whatever public fashion will make them seem up to date.

Do you think that smugness can ever attach itself to agnosticism or atheism?

Yes, it certainly can. You can be very self-righteous as an atheist or an agnostic. I would say that of all the Christian religions, Catholicism is obviously the most intellectually respectable, because a very sound thesis has been built and, provided you have the belief, it can be defended at all points since they’ve spent centuries working it out. But atheists haven’t spent centuries working things out; indeed every atheist has his own argument and his own beliefs. What I tried to do for several years was to find fellow spirits who could be put together a decent funeral service for non-believers, but it couldn’t be done, because there is no basis, there’s no common ethic, no common ground. It would be possible to write a funeral service for myself, but no one else is going to use it, or only very few.

You said you got on well with the farm workers – you like their directness, their strength, their endurance…did you really want to be one of them?

I suppose the short answer is yes, I did. They had a canniness, a sense of humour, a sense of perspective; they were the sort of people I wanted to be. Then I went away to school, which was a very disagreeable wrench, we sold this particular estate, but it was my ambition to buy it back, and until I was wounded I was determined to do so and to reorganize the farm and make it so much better than my father had it. I only gave up the idea because I thought – perhaps wrongly – that I ought to be able to do physically what the other men would be doing. Little did I think that farmers would come to sit in front of a computer for three weeks and then go and shoot partridges in Spain, which is what they do nowadays.

You knew you were different from the upper-class boys but you were also different from the workers – your accent marked you out if nothing else. Where did you feel you belonged exactly?

I was bilingual in so far as I could speak Lallans Scots as well as any of the farm workers – it was a completely different language. When I was with the farm workers I could speak well enough not to be identified as an upper-class person, though sometimes it went wrong. Once when I was with them cutting down a tree by the side of the drive, a car drew up and a chap jumped out and asked me if I could tell him where my father was. I replied in English: ‘He’s gone to Edinburgh to see an osteopath,’ and the farm workers all collapsed with laughter. They started imitating me and thought it the funniest thing. I was so ashamed, but I knew I couldn’t have spoken Scots to this guy because he had a bowler hat on.

You talk about the cynicism you developed perhaps as a defence against your upbringing, the idea that you would believe the worst of everyone, not the best. Did you manage to rid yourself of cynicism in later life?

In certain areas I have never been cynical – in the arts, for example. There I’ve been a total enthusiast, not one of those picky people who’ve tried to find something wrong all the time. I think my cynicism diminished with adolescence, and as I grew older I began to be an enthusiast about many things, a cynic about some, but only those concerned with class, religion and literature. I’ve always been leery of pompous people in literature. My cynicism was tempered finally by the army in which I was a wholehearted soldier. I though, rightly or wrongly, that the war was of critical importance to us, that we really were fighting for our lives and our freedom. That was my motivation, not any affection for military affairs, but once I was in the army I realized there was so much wrong with it that I had to buckle down and try to change it.

In your family there were various euphemisms for bodily functions, and mention of sex was absolutely taboo. Do you think that influenced your attitude later on? What I mean is, if there had been greater openness and honesty, would you have become a different person?

I know that I would have become a different person. I was inhibited until I was a mature man by this terrible legacy of prudery. I can’t explain why, but they managed to induce shame in anything to do with physical sex, and that association was so powerful and so deeply felt that I found I couldn’t shake it off for a very long time, not until I was thirty or forty. With religion one could shake it off quite easily, because it was cerebral, but the idea of sex was absolutely taboo.

Are you saying that until the age of thirty or so you were unable to have a sexual relationship?

Well, one had experiments but one was deeply ashamed of them, which sounds ridiculous now and almost unbelievable, but it’s true. One always started to feel uncomfortable, morally uncomfortable. I resented that. I didn’t see why I should have the hang-up when a lot of people around me didn’t.

You describe the process of divesting yourself of a myth and superstition as a very lonely business. Did you ever lose heart?

No, it wasn’t like that. It was a long business and very difficult and complex, but my interest and enthusiasm grew with knowledge. I never felt for one moment downhearted or that it was an impossible task. Sometimes I realized I’d been following the wrong line and that could be frustrating, but the actual fascination of the study itself didn’t impose any kind of feeling of irritation. In fact it was wonderful. This sounds a silly thing, but I felt so proud actually to have done this, with all the people around me not doing it; I had confidence that this was right and never had a shadow of a doubt.

You joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In your book about the war you say that an infantry officer had only two options in the Second World War – death or being wounded. Did you know that at the outset?

Not so, precisely, but it was a pretty good guess. When you were actually in action, you saw your cadre of officers turn over. It just stared you in the face.

You were wounded at Cassino and lost a leg, something you make light of in your book. Did you actually consider yourself lucky to come out of it alive?

Yes, I did. I got off lightly. In a way there wasn’t a worry about death at the time; in fact one felt almost that death was relief. Blindness was the worst, two limbs pretty bad, one limb, damn lucky.

You had some very complicated feelings about the business of war. Did you ever consider not fighting for your country, or did you see yourself as part of the effort to defeat evil, or what?

Absolutely unequivocally I saw a threat to our way of life. I feared the Nazi regime, and it was real fear. When you saw the power of the Wehrmacht, their organisation, their backup, their efficiency, and compared it to our amateur bunch who were still fighting the 1914-18 war, as it were, it was truly terrifying. I wanted to get in there to do everything I could to reform and rebel against the High Command and try and get some sense into infantry training. That was my main mission.

Did you find it difficult after the war to adapt to civilian life?

No, not a bit. I was sad not to be a farmer, but that didn’t last because I enjoyed other things so much. I enjoy nearly everything, and I sometimes wonder whether it’s a terrible fault. I had a wonderful time after the war.

What attitude did you adopt to disability?

Well, it sounds silly, but it didn’t bother me. It was awkward to get mobile enough to do what I wanted to do, but I instantly realized that certain things were out and I just shut them out of my mind. I was an athlete at Cambridge before the war and that had to go. Also I could no longer fish in waders or do highland dancing. But you immediately make your equation, decide what you can and can’t do.

The gramophone was very influential in your life and encouraged you to study music seriously. Was there something more to music than enjoyment? Did it seem to contain a truth that was lacking in everything else?

Music was always music. I’ve always regarded music as its own thing, in its own compartment, and I’ve never drawn any deductions from music to life. I mean, I think of music as an absolute. I know that operas have librettos and stories, but they are of secondary importance. I know that Kurt Weill was a communist, but that is quite separate. Music is enormously important in my life. I can’t tell anyone how important it is; it’s something I can’t put into words.

Why did you pick Mozart to write on? What is it about Mozart that fascinates you?

Music is very hard to talk about, but I regard Mozart as simply the best. In other composers I find great qualities and also considerable flaws, but Mozart’s top class works are for me pretty well perfection, as near perfection as you can get in this world. Mozart was so quick to learn, not like Beethoven, who was slow to learn and very often clumsy. Beethoven stumbled around and is sometimes a bit of a bore, but powerful, immensely powerful.

Are you keen on Wagner?

I have an enormous respect and liking for Wagner, but the minus side of Wagner is so enormous that to do an equation is almost impossible. His political and sexual kinkiness are definitely on the debit side. The basis of his political theory in the Ring is simply ghastly, as is the cheap stuff in Tannhäuser. The only decent plots are the Dutchman and Meistersinger which bring out a Wagner acceptable in words and music, but when you get to the Ring, what he is saying in words is pretty horrible and also extremely boring. The plus is the most amazing score ever produced, the greatest feat of imagination in the nineteenth century. It’s got that power to move which very few possess. There was a performance of Götterdämmerung at the Proms in the 1960s and when they finished, the whole of the Albert Hall applauded for twenty minutes. They just didn’t stop, so eventually the orchestra left, the conductor left, but the audience went outside and applauded for half an hour in the rain. That’s Wagner’s power.

You have been a director and deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Are you dismayed by the chaotic state of affairs at the moment?

Yes, I am. I think that the actual financial management is very poor. I don’t understand how they could have got into this particularly bad mess. When I was there we had our problems, and you could see ahead the possibility of having fewer assets than outgoings, but we took adequate action and we never had a cash crisis. If you can’t pay the wages, you’re in bad nick.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Royal Opera House?

Absolutely. Good institutions always survive. We are the most musical country in Europe bar none, and we must have a major opera house. There are enough people who have the influence, the power and the desire to see a great opera house here, and they will see that it happens.

Your latest book, Person Granada, charts the history of Granada Television of which you were a founding member. Would you say that Granada has remained true to its founding principles?

I don’t think anything remains true to its founding principles, including the Catholic Church. All institutions change with time and the idea that there are principles which are immutable is one of those follies of mankind. Once Mrs Thatcher came on the scene, a lot of principles went out of the window. Until her philosophy encroached upon it, television as set up in a way that it was your duty to provide public service programmes, and if you didn’t do it you had your licence taken away. When that disappears it becomes a free for all and everything becomes dictated by market forces. I have no regrets as far as Granada goes; it’s part of the general sea of change that’s taken place over the whole community.

But do you think these changes are for the good?

I don’t really believe in better or worse when it comes to changes. I believe that changes are inexorable and you adjust to them. They are absolutely inevitable…the tide comes in and then it goes out.

Well, do you think Mrs Thatcher was right to do what she did?

It was very much against what I would have liked, but it was a tide in human affairs, and she caught that tide. Whether it’s Napoleon, or the Pope, what they’re doing is riding a movement of what people are thinking, how humanity is changing. Thatcher caught that, and she jumped in the saddle just at the moment when the horse was going to run. I’d like to put a lot down to her, but she was only a pawn really in a much greater movement which I think was inevitable. How many of us now believe in the principles of the Labour government of 1945? I remember passionately believing in them, but pretty well every one of those principles has disappeared. Better or worse, I don’t know…principles are as mutable as opinions.

Granada had a reputation for first-class drama programmes right from the start. Why do you think that talented writers and programme makers were particularly drawn to Granada?

The people who ran the company understood writers, we were writers ourselves, or people who were musical, and artists responded to that, they know when they’re getting a sympathetic response. They know when the front office are bastards and when they’re friends, and we were friends. Simple as that.

Granada made its mark with outside broadcasts. You say at one point in the book that these outside broadcasts would now seem to us grotesquely primitive, and even then they were exceedingly boring. Would you say that today a great deal of news coverage, in its endless repetition and search for new angles, is also very boring, perhaps dangerously so, in the sense of numbing the mind?

Yes, I would. I’m very critical of the present standard of news, which is very low and very poor. There are elements in news that should not be there. Very often the news is simply a list of murders, accidents and rarely, very rarely is there any point beyond a general portfolio of crime and disaster. Crime is popular, but what the hell does it matter if someone is murdered, except to the police and the people directly involved? We make the mistake of regarding rape and murder as news, whereas in fact they are a form of rather salacious entertainment. There’s also an awful lot of people’s insides, and new genes that have been discovered. I wouldn’t say it was unhealthy, but it is again not news. The presentation is also very tedious, two newscasters who have been doing it for fifteen years. Sky News is better than BBC and ITN because they have fresh people, but otherwise it is terribly boring at the moment. They handle big stories fairly well, but all in the same sort of sermonizing voice, which is quite wrong now.

Isn’t the emphasis sometimes wrong, the coverage disproportionate?

Oh, crazy. But when the country has a fit of hysteria as it did over Diana, or minor hysteria as it had over Louise Woodward, it’s very difficult for the news editor to know how far to run with that hysteria. If he doesn’t run, he’s going to lose ratings, so there’s always a professional equation. The equation of favour is that you don’t get ratings by talking about people’s stomachs the whole time, or by reading a police gazette. News should be fun when it’s not serious. The present attitude by those rather boring people who run the news is to give a sort of mock Elgarian trumpet horn arrangement to introduce it. Who the hell wants a fanfare before the news?

Do people have an endless capacity for being bored? And should television recognize that and cater for it?

Boredom is really a fascinating topic. You can suck people into an exceedingly repetitious line of thought which deprives them of the capacity to reject it; that’s what boredom is, the couch potato variety. People are deprived of the power to say, oh Christ, let’s switch this off. They have somehow been brainwashed and conditioned into keeping that glazed look when something is happening on the screen which they don’t really care about at all. That sort of subconscious magnetic attraction doesn’t get a lot of ratings, but it will give you a fundament of ratings. People will sit watching without really knowing what the hell they’re watching.

Broadcasting, like publishing, used to be headed by giants, larger than life people who were supremely individual and often autocratic. For example, as you say in your book, Sidney Bernstein was extremely litigious, and given to rages, so that people were afraid to go against him. Is there room for a Sidney Bernstein or a Lew Grade in today’s very different industry?

No, it’s changed. Now you have enormous giants out of sight. Rupert Murdoch or Conrad Black – they’re not hands-on giants, they are giants who work in the background secretly and manipulate their staff and pull the strings. Another reason that broadcasting and publishing are now businesses, and they are run by people who are more accountants than impresarios. I was brought up in the impresario age, but the age of the impresario is over. What you get now is a committee looking at a proposal and a businessman saying, ‘It’s only going to deliver 4 per cent of profit.’ Once again, I don’t challenge change; it happens.

Your relationship with Sidney Bernstein did not always run smoothly. You had different origins and backgrounds – Sidney being the son of a Jewish immigrant tailor. Did that ever get in the way?

Absolutely not. I liked that Jewish, continental culture to which he belonged. Lew Grande had it too. I found them wonderfully quick people to work for, down to earth and very often funny. The Jewish sense of humour is wonderful. The differences between Sidney and me were those of two stags on the same hill; I was doing something that he had done before, and he did not really like to see the younger generation taking over. I think it was as simple as that; I felt that at the time, and I still feel that. If Sidney and I had not been very close friends, as we were before I started working, and as we were at the end. But we had our problems in the middle, because he resented what I did very much, and I resented his interference. He was a perfect pain in the arse.

Your comments about John Birt have received quite a bit of attention. After giving an account of how he squandered money on programmes which were never made, you rather damn him with faint praise…you seem very unimpressed by him.

Yes, I’m not impressed by John Birt. I think he is a nice man, and he has a certain ability, but both he and his employers have enormously overestimated that ability. The BBC is not a happy place, and it’s no good defending the license fee, and having all these wonderful new schemes if the place is unhappy and if the basis for making programmes is not a good one. The whole purpose of administration is to give the programme people a chance and to hell with everything else. They have to have enough money, they have to have a firm base, but this idea of accountability right, left and centre in everything is hopeless. Hugh Greene was a great director general and he kept that sort of thing down by force of personality and strength of character. If a minister or an MP criticized Hugh he would put him down by what he said and who he was; he didn’t need to keep working away, making friends with people in high places and producing new schemes and so on.

If I can quote from your book: ‘Even then John Birt had such a passionate belief in his own intellectual process that he could persuade others he was as clever as he believed himself to be, which was a matter open to some doubt.’ Do you think Birt is dangerous as well as deluded?

Not dangerous. I think he’s doing absolutely his best by his own lights, but his beliefs are misguided. In an institution like the BBC people are more important than anything else. People should look after other people, and those at the top will pick others as good as themselves so that the pyramid goes down, and at the bottom of the pyramid you have the producers working in a helpful climate. John Birt does not rate that as highly as I would. He wants the system to be right, to be efficient, he will spend hours, days, years trying to make it so, but he will not build the pyramid of people, he will concentrate only on the structures and the forms.

If, as you suggest, he has no talent for the management of people, how does it happen that such a man can be in charge of a creative organization?

It was a matter of fashion in a way. The BBC had a number of really outstanding personalities as its director general, and then there was a feeling, quite justified, that the spending got out of hand and there was money being wasted on a rather disgraceful scale. It needed tightening up and it needed a director general who would look at the economics. They got one. Meanwhile the poor buggers who struggle away making programmes are desperately unhappy, no question of that.

Of course John Birt is operating within a very different ethos from the one which characterized your days at Granada…this is an era of top-heavy management and accountants – the same has happened in publishing. Is John Birt just a product of the prevailing spirit?

He has adopted the fashion of the outside world, but the terrible thing is that there is no need to do so. You have to make a commercial profit everywhere else, but in the BBC you do not need to do so. As long as you organize your resources, your income and expenditure, you do not have to produce 25 per cent profit on capital or whatever the parameters are in business today; all you have to do is to get the housekeeping organized in such a way as to permit your programmes makers to do their very best. My belief always was that if you called in a consultant it meant failure; you had failed to solve the problem which you should have been able to work out for yourself. The consultant will in the end give you something you usually don’t want.

Which things, if any, would you say are better on television now?

Variety. Things are being channelled by subject – there are four sports channels, for example, and I think that’s good. At almost any time of the day or night you can see first class sport. I like the canalization of broadcasting. I think the BBC and ITV were very slow to see it come, and they still have hardly caught up with it.

If you were running television now, what would be your guiding principle?

Always to create circumstances to allow talented people to make the best possible programmes – it’s as simple as that. To let talent do what it wants with the minimum of interference.

I was rather surprised to discover that you are an admirer of Rupert Murdoch. What is the basis of this admiration?

Admirer is the wrong word. What I happen to be is a defender of Rupert Murdoch against people who totally malign him. Rupert’s responsibility for publishing a lot of the rubbish is criminal, but on the other hand, he’s absolutely straight, so when I hear him roundly condemned I always say this. He is reliable, he is honourable, and until recently I would have said he kept his contracts. The other thing is Wapping, which was a very brave thing to do, whether you approved or not. Even though I don’t like his publishing policy, I acknowledge that Rupert has done good things.

Isn’t it dangerous when too much power rests with one individual?

Yes. And so far every country who has tried to limit it has failed. To me it’s a comment on the fallibility of politicians, who are blackmailed into permitting this to happen for fear their own popularity will be impaired.

A recurring theme in your book is your passion for asking awkward questions. Has that got you into a lot of trouble in your life?

It’s got me into trouble with governments and sometimes with my superiors, but on the whole I would say it has been a profitable exercise. Asking awkward questions is an extremely important part of negotiating your way through life. If you put diplomatic demeanour ahead of getting results you’re a goner. I would do anything not to be bullied by the politician or the editor who usually says something is against the interests of the nation, or if you publish that story the country is going to lose millions of pounds. It’s invariably absolute rubbish. The last resort is the official secrets act; people who want to stop a programme always cite the official secrets act. I don’t believe there is any security matter today that merits censorship. Northern Ireland, terrorism and the drugs scene require a degree of secrecy, but the idea of national security is total rubbish. There is nothing to be secure about – the Russians always knew more than we did anyway.

Would you say you are a contented man?

Contented with my own lot, but I thrive on discontent. To be critical and constantly searching for improvements is necessary for a fulfilling life. There are angry old men, just as there are angry young men. While I’m not so very angry, I’m still alert to a feeling of things being abused or going wrong. I’m constantly feeling I want to pick up my pen, and though I don’t usually do it, there is a mental letter going on most days. I don’t feel in the least serene.


I was rather surprised to read recently that cashmere, the classic woollen wear, whose fortune has dipped in recent years, is now back – with demand for cardigans, scarfs and hats soaring last Christmas, according to John Lewis.
The department store chain, which stocks cashmere in 71 colours, said shoppers were prepared to buy it as a treat because it proves to be of long lasting quality. It also said husbands and boyfriends had been snapping up its range as an ideal present for wives and girlfriends.

The chain sells cashmere scarfs for £55, with its jumpers priced at £99. Its most expensive item in the range is a black cashmere jacket costing £499. John Lewis claim it stocks one of the widest ranges of goods made from the material on the high street.

Cashmere, originating In India, is synonymous with luxury wealth and comfort. It is obtained from cashmere goats whose coats are finer and softer than sheep’s wool. It was Napoleon who introduced the fabric to Europe in the 1800s, when his wife arrived in Paris wearing it.

It takes the wool of three goats to make just one cashmere scarf, meaning it has a premium price tag. But as well as looking good, it’s also guaranteed to keep you cosy.

Cashmere is said to be eight times better at keeping you warm to ordinary wool, but it is also far more lightweight, meaning it can be worn in autumn through to spring.

I have always regarded cashmere as a luxury item which makes the wearer feel good and very comfortable. I am addicted to its impeccable softness and variety of colour. My favourite shop, which stocks a great variety of cashmere, is in Knightsbridge where its range is extraordinary and very hard to resist.

If you happen to appreciate quality and service you won’t do better than visit this friendly store which, I am sure, will fulfil all your needs. Appropriately called The Cashmere Shop, at 43 Brompton Road, it is well worth your visit and is always a pleasure.


The use of slang in the English language is becoming so popular that the weather forecast will soon be expressed in terms which would be better understood in the various regions that appreciate its use and enhance its colourful meaning. When it’s raining heavily in the Black Country, it’s ‘bucketing’; in Birmingham, it’s ‘tipping down’, but if you’re up North it’s more likely to be ‘chucking it.’ For a country obsessed with the rain it’s no surprise the UK’s regions all have their own slang to describe the weather. And soon each area’s identity may be reflected by the national forecaster. The Met Office is set to consider using regional slang in its local broadcasts. The weather service is launching a scheme that could incorporate idioms to make bulletins seem simpler and more accessible.

It is appealing for keen weather watchers to submit their local terms so it can create a glossary to add character to regional forecasts. The initiative came following a survey of 2000 people which found disparities between how we describe the weather. It discovered more than half of those in the Black Country use ‘bucketing’ to describe heavy rain, where 6 in 10 people in Leeds would say ‘chucking it down’. Londoners prefer the term ‘canning it,’ while those in Birmingham and Bristol use ‘tipping it down.’ Overall, ‘pouring’ was the most popular term nationally.

Derreck Ryall, Head of the Public Weather Service at the Met Office said: ‘The range of slang for rain alone demonstrates the breadth and diversity of the English language and the varying terminology used across the UK. As the UK national weather service we are always looking to improve the way weather forecasts are communicated, to make them as useful as possible and increase their understanding. It’s not just dialects that make a region distinct but also people’s sense how cold it is.’

The survey, conducted by Vital last month, found two-fifths of Londoners describe a temperature of 15 centigrade (59 Fahrenheit) in January as cold, but three-quarters of those in East Anglia, Wales and the South West thought it was warm. It also revealed that respondents struggle to interpret weather symbols. More than half wrongly interpreted the sun symbol, which indicates bright clear skies, as hot or warm weather. Only 14 per cent where able to identify the symbol for sleet.

The Met Office is launching a project on Twitter asking people to describe the weather in three words. The information will be used to compare regional phrases to see if there are better ways to express the forecast. Mr Ryall added: ‘We have used a set of symbols and vocabulary to describe the weather for over 40 years and it’s important they are still relevant. It’s become apparent from recent studies that different regions interpret language and information uniquely.’

Personally, I have often used the term ‘pissing down’, perhaps a vulgar expression, but one understood in all regions.

No Longer With Us


Hardy Amies was born in London in 1909-2003. After studying languages in France and Germany he trained as a weighing-machine salesman in Birmingham before entering the world of design. In the 1930s he rose to become one of Britain’s leading couturiers. During the war he served as an intelligence officer in the SEO and in 1946 he founded his own fashion house. His salon is one of the few left in Britain to rival the great dress houses of Paris. He is dressmaker by appointment to Queen Elizabeth and he was knighted in 1989.


I interviewed him in 1991 and here is the substance of what he told me then.

In your autobiography you record that there was no marked display of affection in your childhood. Was that something you were aware of at the time or did it occur to you only on mature reflection?
I was never ware of it. I have the feeling of having had loving parents who were not demonstrative; I have no feeling of ever having been deprived of affection.

Were they ambitious for you?
Yes, my mother particularly so – and fortunately she lived just long enough to see the glimmering of the first success.

Yet in your book you make a point of avoiding discussing the relationship with your mother. Why is that?
I don’t know. I actually got on better with her than I did with my father, though he was a most affectionate man, and we didn’t get on badly by any means, but in the long run he wasn’t very bright, and she was brighter. My mother had what is laughingly called taste – of course it was restricted to suburban taste, her life being very circumscribed. She was a village girl, but because of the years that she’d spent in a court dressmaker’s she could recognize a real lady, and how she behaved, and she respected that.

Your brother who was Down’s Syndrome ‘coloured your childhood’ as you put it. Did you resent the amount of attention and care he required?
Not in anyway whatsoever. It’s only looking back that I realize that it must have been a tremendous strain on my mother and on the resources of my father. But I wasn’t conscious of that at the time, and I never had any feelings of disappointment. We loved him – Down’s Syndrome children are always loveable – and later I inherited responsibility for him when my parents died, but by that time he had been in a home for several years.

You left the family circle at the first opportunity, and though you insist there was nothing ‘unpleasant’ about your upbringing, one has the impression that yours was not a very happy childhood…
I was certainly pursued by lack of money, but although that imposed huge restrictions, we were not on the poverty line. Overall, I think we were happy.
Your mother’s death seems to have been a terrible blow. What are your memories of that time?
She had been ill with cancer for so long that there was an element of relief; it was only afterwards that I was moved.

Your father remarried within a short time, and both you and your sister seem to have disapproved of his second wife. Why was that?
Although she was a goodhearted woman she was socially very inferior to our standards, which is an awfully snobbish thing to say, but it’s true. As in most families the daughter is closer to the father, and so my sister minded more than I did. She was at first jealous of this really hideous woman. She was so ugly apart from anything else.

Then why did he marry her?
I wouldn’t care to go into the details. I now realize that my father was a very sexy man, and obviously she had certain tricks which satisfied him.

You are very close to your sister Rosemary…is she the most important person in your life?
Yes. I’m six years older than she is, rather bossy, and frankly, much cleverer than she is, something she has always admitted herself. There are strains which are difficult to articulate. I am very conscious of my responsibility towards her, but one of the difficulties is that she is, I think, sexless, in the sense of not really being interested in sex, although she has had sentimental attachments to women. Consequently, she’s never really understood my life which perplexes her still. It’s difficult for her to accept that I have male friends, though there are some who have always been in my life and with them she had made friends, I’m happy to say.

She hates it when people call you effeminate.
Yes. I am able to laugh at it, because I’m not really effeminate at all. In fact I would loathe to be a woman. Another difficulty is that she accuses me of not liking women; and that is true to an extent. I like them as artistic figures, as a sculptor likes his clay, but on the whole I despise their minds.

So you feel more comfortable in the presence of men.
Yes. It’s not that I don’t want women in my life – I’m very happy to have them around. But we’re in danger of getting on to sex, which I said we weren’t going to talk about.

In the early 1930s when you were in Germany you were a great enthusiast for Hitler – like, of course, a great many other people then, before the direction of his interests became clear. Were you very disillusioned?
The disillusionment came gradually. The family with whom I stayed welcomed Hitler as a saviour of the middle classes and the aristocracy, and I simply went along with them and didn’t question their judgement. A much greater influence in my life at that time was the manager of the local factory, a north German, an extremely orderly man, who, I now realize, was very attracted to me. He was an intelligent, politically clear-thinking man, who favoured the Nazis to begin with, but changed in the course of events, and by the time I left he was very disillusioned.

Have you ever taken a serious interest in politics since then? Have you ever joined a political party?
No. I’m only interested from the outside. Our local MP is Douglas Hurd, and I go to his meetings out of politeness to him. Also, before the last election I couldn’t bear the thought of the socialists winning, so I wanted to give him all the help I could.

I doubt whether it’s generally known that you were part of the special forces during the last year. That would seem improbable to those with stereotypical ideas of a dress designer. Did you enjoy that period of your life?
Not really. I considered myself lucky to have spent the major part of the war in a branch of the War Office in London. Unless I was on duty, which was about once a month, I had every Sunday and half of Saturday free and was generally home by 6’oclock. This enabled me to keep my hand in the dressmaking world. I still suffer from a bad conscience from that time, however, since I think I ought to have resigned because I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I didn’t think the idea of dropping parachutists into occupied countries was working; I suspected always that we were so infiltrated that we dropped people straight into enemy hands. I considered the whole operation tremendously amateurish and I started to feel quite cynical about things.

Did you always want to be a dressmaker?
No, I never thought about it. It always seemed something so remote from out lives, in spite of my mother. And in those days there were no designers in England; clothes were bought in Paris. It wasn’t until I had an offer from the husband of my mother’s boss that I suddenly thought, my God, this of course is what I want to do.

I imagine that a lot of people not in the business regard dress design as a frivolous affair. Does that bother you?
No. I am not aware that people regard it in that way. On the contrary, they are always amazed to hear about how much I earn for the country. At the time I joined the profession it was becoming socially acceptable, so I profited from that development.

How on earth did you manage to set up any sort of business, let alone a fashion house, at a time of such terrible austerity?
The war was a long time starting and it was a long time finishing. Churchill wanted unconditional surrender, which horrified me in view of my German connections. But during the time it dragged on I had the chance to lay down plans. I felt no guilt, since I didn’t take any hours off, just my full allowance of free time. Then my darling stepmother gave me a thousand pounds, which was quite a lot of money in those days. I had ten thousand pounds when I started, and we made ten thousand pounds profit during the first year. There was actually no feeling of austerity; everybody wanted new clothes. The Americans were the ones who really encouraged us, because they were on my doorstep before we even had the clothes – in fact they bought them form paper patterns. I opened on 1 February 1946, and by April I was in America at their expense.

In an interview with Richard Rosenfeld you used terms like ‘smarty pants’ with some affection and talked about the ‘gentry’. Did you feel very conscious of social divisions when you began? You appeared to adore the smart set.
Yes, I knew that I had to get on. Looking back, I learned the language of English upper class just as I’d learned German and French. The London upper class is like a club and I am always amazed when I am admitted as a member. And I’m so very pleased, because one meets much more interesting people. Sometimes I see others in the same business and I think, how naff you are. I’m not naff, but I easily could have been.

You describe yourself as a self-confessed snob. Have you no qualms about that at all?
No. I am a staunch supporter of the class system. I uphold it out of conviction; it’s the best of England, no question about it.

Don’t you have a commercial incentive to say that?
Of course, the commercial side suits me very well, but there are two more important reasons. Firstly I have a happier life for being a snob because I have a wide circle of friends, and the top people are far more interesting than the bottom people. Secondly, I’m very keen on English history and have an above average knowledge of it, certainly above average for a dressmaker. I have also lived in Germany, and I am perfectly at home in France, and I know how much both these countries would love to have a queen. The French and German aristocracies are clubs within themselves; they are self-supporting, but there’s no top.

So you’re a great supporter of the monarchy?
I would die for it. I really would take out a gun and go and shoot people if they ever threatened it. It’s one of our most precious assets. To destroy it would be the most wicked thing. I say this not just because I admire the present Queen. I would still support the monarchy even if we had a bad queen, heaven forfend that we did. It’s the idea I defend; primogeniture is order – it’s God.

You design dresses for the Queen. How important is that to you?
I’m really a supplier, a fournisseur, a furnisher of clothing to her. She accepts my advice if it suits her to do so. Her guiding principle in ordering clothes is that they shall be appropriate to the occasion for which she wants them. Not that she has explained all that to me – it’s something I sense. She has supremely good manners.

You clearly have great admiration for her.
Enormous, and for many reasons – her politeness, the order of her mind, the way the palace is run, the way she has never failed to keep an appointment.

I suppose there is a sense in which the fashion business depends on a certain sort of snobbery, on the urge to be differently and better dressed than others.
I don’t think there’s an urge of any consequence. Our customers simply want to be comfortable and correctly dressed for the occasion. There is sometimes a competitive element, most evident when mothers are choosing a dress for their daughter, and want it to be better than the one they saw on their friend’s daughter. But the competitiveness is not so strong in their ordinary buying; in many cases they don’t want to stand out, they just want to be comfortably acceptable.

You have promoted an ‘English style’. What do you think are its characteristics?
The main characteristics of the English style is that it has to have something to do with the country. A well-dressed, well-bred English-woman is at her best when she looks as though she has either just come up from the country or is just going back there. Urban clothes are better made by the French. Another feature is a certain nonchalance – a word invented in my studio. We abhor the dressed-up look, and we’re not good at what is called dead chic – mort chic – that’s not our line of country. There also has to be a curious timelessness about English clothes, because it’s not good style to wear a new dress. My favourite duchess gave a very important private ball for which she wore a twenty-five-year-old dress. She had a new dress made by me for the servants’ ball which took place the day before so the servants could not say that her grace was wearing an old dress. But for her own proper ball she wore an old dress and she looked marvellous. That is English style at its best.

Do you think of your designs as artworks? After all, they are clearly works of the imagination…
Absolutely not. I look on them as the work of an artisan. I don’t like going to museums where they have collections of garments which have usually been designed for one particular occasion, then put away. My clothes are worn out and do not appear in museums.

I suppose dress designing is so personal a service that you become closely acquainted with some of your customers, a bit like a portrait painter…
That’s not quite true. I have seen very few of my customers over forty years. Don’t forget the structure of the house which dictates that clients are seen by a vendeuse who does more than just sell; she serves the customer and waits on her and guides her through all the fittings, and very often becomes her friend. I like to retire and leave it to her. It is also a question of using up time and energy; I love to see my customers, but if my business were based on their always having to see me, I’d have been dead years ago. I don’t even see the Queen anymore

I have always wondered quite how it is that fashions change in the way they do. It never seems to be the case that things are suddenly and radically different. Do you think there is some sort of revolutionary law which governs it?
Fashion changes much less than you think. The idea of it changing is one promoted by newspapers which find it a very good way of filling a page. The women I know, not only my own customers but in my life generally, change the length of their skirts by perhaps one inch per season. Good expensive clothes for ladies don’t actually date. I recently went to a very high-class wedding in Scotland and saw five different women wearing coats which were ten years old. I felt proud of that.

And they looked smart?
They looked correct. There is a difference. It’s a difference the Queen understands; she knows being too smart implies something hard. The Duchess of Windsor on the other hand is dressed too smartly.

You said once that you can always tell when a lady’s got style – ‘You have only to see her in her underclothes to appreciate that.’ Perhaps you’ve been luckier than I have, but how else can you tell…I mean, what constitutes style?
I think the word is insouciance. You must never show that you are impressed by your own clothes, or have that ‘Don’t I look wonderful?’ expression. You must never be conquered by your clothes; style is to be master of your clothes. When you see women in their underwear they must be immaculate. I take a rather old-fashioned view since most ladies of great style nowadays wear Marks and Spencer underwear, but I prefer the undergarment to be of beautiful quality, superbly hand-made, and extremely plain. Frilly underclothes constitute extremely bad style.

There are now design schools and indeed art schools with sections devoted to clothes design. Do you think it is actually possible for the industry to sustain the current numbers of designers?
No. A very wise question. Firstly I deplore the fact that there are design departments in art schools; it gives them quite the wrong idea, because clothes design is not art, it’s craftmanship. They even give degrees now which is totally idiotic. In my view a dress is not a dress until it has been sold; before that it’s just a rough sketch, a suggestion. There must be the desire for a woman to possess it, to pay money for it, and that philosophy is sadly lacking in the art schools. Secondly there has definitely been a decline in the teaching of craft. There should be more prizes for craftmanship rather than design. What we lack are trained craftsmen and craftswomen, not designers. There are too many designers.

Fashion will I suppose become more and more international, especially with the advent of the Common Market at the end of this year. Will there be room for distinctive national differences? Indeed, is it possible now to see that a particular dress is French or Italian?
If it looks vulgar it has a good chance of being Italian as distinct from French. But that is an unattractive remark.

You have been outspoken, if not scathing, about women in design. Why is it that there are so few well-known women designers? One would have thought that they were the obvious source for ideas and yet many of the more famous designers seem to be men.
Men are objective, women are not – about clothes, or indeed anything else. The one outstanding exception was Chanel, and it is extraordinary how her influence is still felt today. But she had a man’s mind and was very disciplined in her designs. Also a designer of high-class expensive clothes cannot exist alone; he has to have a team with him, and this is what is forgotten by most people, and certainly not appreciated by the press. I am here today at the age of eighty-three because I have support, and in three years’ time my house will have been fifty years in existence. I am the boss, and men make better bosses than women do. Because we’re more intelligent.

Twenty years ago you were saying that couture business was really finished; it was too labour intensive to make any money. But it still seems to be going. How long do you think such business might continue?
Well, we lose money at the moment, but if we are clever enough to earn in other fields, in licensing fees, in design labels, and in using our studio intelligently, then I think we will win through.

Have you ever designed clothes to be provocative?
Not consciously. They are sometimes seductive, but not provocative. If a dress is too sexy it’s a bad dress, I’ve always said.

At one point you sold a considerable share in your business to Debenham’s only to buy it back again later on. Why did you feel it was necessary to do that? Did they try and control your creative output?
No, they didn’t do that. The disadvantage was essentially in having new bosses, in fact in having bosses at all, since I’d always been totally independent. When they bought us they promised to do two things: one was to help launch a women’s ready-to-wear business which would have had the marvellous platform of Debenhams’s sixty shops; secondly they were going to launch a proper scent business – but they did neither. And in addition we had the aggravation of being bossed by them. There was blatant jealousy towards me, and it was also quite clear to them that they couldn’t control me. Though I had no shares in the business most of the contracts were in my name – Japan, for example, would never have given contract to Debenham’s, the would only give it to Hardy Amies. This irked them, but in the end it always comes down to personalities, and the personalities at Debenham’s were inferior. When it all came to a head and they wanted me to do something which I wouldn’t do, they said – and the words still ring in my ears – ‘If you don’t do this, Hardy, we’ll cut you up into little pieces,’ meaning they would destroy me. I thought it was time to part company, so a favourable price was arranged and I bought myself back.

The recession continues to bite despite all the government talks. I imagine that the fashion business must feel the force of that very early…
When there is a recession people buy wisely. If a woman is prepared to spend £2,500 on a suit, she knows she is buying the best possible value. So the recession hits shoddier merchandise than ours. We suffer a little bit, but my retail figures for the last year are down only ten per cent, which is not too bad, and the overseas revenue is up.

You never married. Was that a conscious decision or was it just that the right circumstances never occurred?
It never occurred to me that I would marry. I did once get engaged to a girl, but I cannot think why; it certainly wasn’t because I wanted to go to bed with her. I thought perhaps she would make a good wife to me, but she was sensible enough to say no. I have been quite content and self-contained in the way I have lived, and I’ve never felt lonely for one minute. I have my sister, and I love having friends around. Ken Fleetwood who has been with me for forty-two years and is now the design director of my business comes to my country house fifty weekends out of fifty-two. We are not lovers, but he is like a son to me in the broadest sense.

Abut three years ago I interviewed Harold Acton who is a confirmed bachelor, but when I asked him if he had ever desired a woman, he said that he had, and indeed had a penchant for oriental women. Have you ever desired a woman?
No. I’m tremendously physical but I can’t say I have ever desired a woman. I love flesh, I’m very tactile, very ‘MTF’ – Must Touch Flesh. I actually love touching women for the pleasure of it, to hold their hands, to stroke their arms, and I love beautiful women. It gives me immense pleasure to dress a woman to perfection. You can’t do it to a man because he just looks a pratt, a bloody fool. So curiously enough whilst I am obviously attracted to men more than I am to women, I still think it is idiotic to dress a man. I’ve always said a man should order his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forget all about them.

You have, I believe, made arrangements to leave your fashion house to your employees. Certainly a very generous gesture, but I wonder if you have ever regretted not having had children to come after you?
It never crossed my mind. In fact I’m very grateful I haven’t got children. The children of men in the dress business all seem to want to be lawyers or bankers, they never want to follow their fathers. When I see the trouble and responsibilities that children bring, I don’t regret not having had children for one moment.

How would you sum up your recipe for success?
I’ve worked hard, not desperately hard, but I’ve always done my duty and I have a conscience about not doing the right thing. I have also had an amazing amount of luck. Perhaps the most significant factor was my three years on the road as a salesman selling weighing machines; it was not a very happy existence, but I did it and created an aura of orderliness and of dutifulness which somehow stood me in good stead. If I hadn’t done my duty with this rotten job I would never have got the good one.

I understand Molyneux was your god, why is that?
Firstly because he was an Englishman, secondly he had extremely good taste in clothes. He believed in simplicity, as I do. All good clothes are totally unfussy. The first dress I ever saw of his was the simplest possible garment that just buttoned up the front, but it was absolutely impeccably made in beige linen with black buttons. And I learned that lesson and I follow it to this day. Although I can’t draw, I have a gift of being able to see a garment from a piece of cloth. There are glib designers, little boys wo can draw, make a little sketch, but they never seriously think of it, as I do. When I’m working on an article I think about it all the time, and then it takes me ten minutes to write it, because it’s already written in my head. Although I don’t want to compare myself with a genius, this is exactly what Mozart did. On the way to Prague he was thinking about what he was going to write when he got there, and then he sat down and wrote the overture to Don Giovanni in ten minutes.

How important is a beautiful face for the success of a dress?
A beautiful face helps tremendously, but the real challenge for the designer is to give a woman grace; it’s what I call honouring cloth – you mustn’t foul it up. No seam is ever attractive, so you must have a minimum of seams, then you have to achieve a certain skill of disguise. A woman of a certain age does not have an attractive bosom, and anyway to show the bosom too markedly is common; to disguise is very important. Then you indicate the waist by the position of the buttons, rather than by nipping it in – the cloth must not be fucked up.

At the age of eighty-three you seem very fit. What is your secret?
Homeopathy is very important in my life. I’m not fanatical about it but I will use a homeopathic remedy if I possibly can. I haven’t taken an aspirin for fifty years. And tennis is a very good cosmetic. I play an hour’s tennis on Saturday and Sunday, and for the rest of the week people tell me how well I look.

I read somewhere that you’re not in the least afraid of death.
No. You’re just going into nothing, so why should you be frightened of nothing? I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe in the existence of God, but it could have been any other name – nature, for example, or order. I think there’s something that was put into our minds, and the question is, why the fuck are we here? I don’t know the answer, but there is something we want to order, but the order is gone when you’re dead, totally gone. And I don’t mind it. I was meant to have a life, not a death.

A lot of people who are not religious in their youth, trend to become more religious with advancing years.
I don’t have that feeling at all. My sister, being six years younger, thinks I’m going to die before her, and she would like to have a funeral for me. I quite agree, because I don’t know of any other way of doing it. These non-denominational affairs are too awful for words. I’d rather have the whole thing, incense and choir, the lot. But this is nothing to do with fear, nothing to do with getting on the right side of God, not remotely.

And nothing to do with conviction?
No. It’s toujours la politesse. It’s good manners.

You were knighted in 1989. After the long association with the royal family did you not think this was a somewhat belated honour?
No. It never crossed my mind. I still think it’s the biggest stroke of luck. Queen Victoria founded the Royal Victorian Order for services to the sovereign. I don’t think she ever intended it for dressmakers.

You’ve had two books published now. Has that been a rewarding experience?
Publishers have one serious fault and this it that they never read anything. [Laughs.] You just know they haven’t read the bloody book. George Weidenfeld is quite an inspiring man to help you make a book, but I don’t think he’s terribly interested. In any case I think my books are pretty dull in the end because they’ve got so many tactful omissions. Men should never have women editors because they don’t understand how men’s minds work. Diana Mosley was so funny when she said apropos of publishers that they all keep a troupe of Nigerians in their cupboards and when they edit a book they bring one out of the cupboard and give her a stub pencil. Women always bring in irrelevances. They’re illogical creatures. Even Mrs Thatcher is a typical example, quite illogical, doesn’t follow it through. She also imitates an upper-class voice which is the biggest grating thing that anybody can do. The voice is the key to the class system in England; once a man or woman opens his or her mouth you know what his or her class is. True scots accents, or Lancashire, or Manchester, they’re lovely; what is awful is the whine, the Walthamstow whine.

You’re a very emotional man. Have you ever fallen madly in love?
Oh yes…every week, mostly with the milkman. [Laughs.]

How would you like to be remembered?
I would like people to say, oh we miss him, he was such fun. I like laughing with people more than anything in the world. Life is a joke, a big joke.









I was surprised to read in December of last year that stress hits women harder than men, having always reckoned that women are more resilient to stress, due to their physical constitution because childbirth makes them much stronger to pain than the male. But now we are told by doctors that stress is more damaging to women’s hearts than it is to men’s.

They warn that women with heart disease should try to protect themselves from becoming tense and envious because they put themselves more at risk of problems such as a heart attack. In women, mental stress constricts small blood vessels supplying blood to the heart – starving it of oxygen. But in men, mental stress was not found to restrict the blood supply in the same way. Instead, it was found to increase blood pressure and heart rate making the heart work harder. It is not clear however why the differences between the sexes exist.

Dr Viola Vaccarino of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia said: ‘This research is important because previous studies have shown that a reduction in blood supplied to the heart (they call it ischemia) during mental stress doubles the risk of heart attack or death from heart disease. This increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events is about the same level as that seen in people who develop reduced blood flow in the heart muscle during a conventional test, such as a treadmill stress test.’

The US findings were based on texting 678 adult men and women, all of whom were over 63 and suffering from heart disease, who had to deliver a speech while researchers measured their blood pressure and heart rate. The scientists also took scans of their hearts and measured how much blood vessels in their fingers contracted. The researchers found marked differences in how stress affected men and women. In females, constriction of tiny peripheral blood vessels in reaction to mental stress was linked to the reduced blood supply. This caused an increase in afterload – the force the heart must use to pump blood so it is pushed into the constricted blood vessels – which is linked to heart damage. But in men, there was a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, which had a different effect – making the heart work harder.

Dr Vaccarino said: ‘Our findings in the peripheral circulation also could reflect what occurs in the arteries in the heart. Instead of dilating and increasing blood flow to the heart during stress, in women the tiny blood vessels are constricted, leading to areas of reduced blood flow.’ She added: ‘Constriction of peripheral vessels can also induce ischemia in the heart indirectly because the heart has to pump against increased resistance.’ For those with heart disease, these results emphasise the importance of finding ways to reduce psychological stress and its potential impact on the body, researchers said.

Dr Vaccarino continued: ‘Women with heart disease need to know that they may be vulnerable to the effects of mental stress and think about ways to protect their hearts such as relaxation techniques and physical exercise.’ The authors said the findings added to the understanding of mental stress to related heart damage because previous studies had mainly focused on men. They also said they hoped the findings will identify methods to treat stress related heart disease. The research was published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Muscular Biology, an American Heart Association journal.

Earlier research has found mental stress heart damage can lead to a doubling of the chance of heart attacks and death. Previous studies have also shown that mental stress has been found to be a separate risk factor to heart damage by that caused by physical stresses.

I find that these sorts of researches enhance our knowledge of the human body, which very often vary between that of men and women to perhaps the ultimate benefit of both.


The Sunday Herald in Scotland gave the task to Brian Beacom, senior features writer on the newspaper, to interview Alexander Newley and talk to him at length about growing up with his mother, Joan Collins, and his father, Anthony Newley – the subject of his autobiography, Unaccompanied Minor, published recently by Quartet Books to considerable critical acclaim.


Reading this latest interview, however, I was impressed by its range to the degree that I decided to make it the subject of today’s blog. It clearly shows the book’s quality, and the way the interview skilfully got the author to speak freely of his childhood and his difficult, yet loving, relationship with both famous parents.
Here’s the interview in its entirety:

JUST 20 seconds into the chat with the son of showbiz luminescents Joan Collins and Anthony Newley, it’s already time to call him out. Alexander Newley has gone all lovely and gushing about his early life in Hollywood, suggesting it was one long series of rides on Steve McQueen’s handlebars, of playing pool with James Caan and watching the likes of Paul Newman and Billy Wilder soak up the poolside sun. “It was fun,” says the artist-turned-writer, in upbeat tone as he talks of the second half of the sixties. “My parents were both big performers, big personalities.”

Whoah, there, Alexander. Fun? In your autobiography (and nicely written it is too) you mentioned you almost drowned during one of those star-soaked pool parties. There was your mother – “weaving, diaphanous in floating colours, taking the temperature of every huddled conversation” – but neither she nor your father noticed your two-year-old self had flipped over in the splash for the longest time. It took your mother’s scream and the party to freeze before your father also saw what had happened and dive in to the rescue.

“You’re right,” says Newley, projecting a little laugh from his studio in northwest London. “There are some downbeats in the piece. But I think any child would have had those in his life. Mine may have been just a tad more amplified because it seemed like everything then was so much more intense; the houses, the places, the people, all so heightened.”

Alexander Newley, nicknamed Sacha when he was a young boy, was born in 1965 when his parents were both arm-wrestling for work in Hollywood. It really wasn’t a great time for him to decide to become their son. Joan Collins was having sporadic success, landing guest shows such as Star Trek and small film roles, her melodramatic performances often a little large for the decade. (Her style would later re-emerge in the Dynasty era.) Meanwhile, Anthony Newley had been a major West End theatre star and a successful songwriter but his full-blown characters didn’t really lend themselves to film at all.

Collins and Newley were also very different creatures. She loved the party circuit, a woman high on life and people and attention while Newley was more often insular and high on chemicals. They both craved fame, yet while Collins would work pretty much anywhere, Newley believed himself a showbiz – and a sexual – adventurer. While working in Vegas for the Mob, women were dropped off to him the way other men ordered a takeaway. His appetite for women and E-Type Jags was insatiable.

In 1969, Newley made his autobiographical film Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness? “It was a balls-out confession in which he rakes over his entire life, recasting it as a grail quest for the perfect piece of ass,” says his son. It was to signal the end of his parents’ marriage. Collins, who had dumped Robert Wagner to take up with the mercurial, often brilliant Newley, realised she could never compete with the streams of very young hopefuls auditioning for the job of her husband’s lover. (She later maintained her ex-husband’s partners were 17 and upwards). The chances of Newley and Collins going the distance were non-existent.

Meantime, Alexander and his older sister Tara were looked after, for the most part, by a nanny. They f*** you up, your mum and dad, don’t they Alexander? “Yes, they did,” says the talented portrait artist whose work is heavily displayed in the book. And he tells one story of how he was being “supervised” by the nanny but had climbed up a tree. His mother called out to ask where little Sacha was, and the nanny said she was keeping an eye on him. She was. But he was still up the tree, and his mother simply accepted that. “I know,” he says, anticipating the question. “My mother didn’t always get it right. But the idea of doing the book engendered lots of conversations. It was cathartic to write it all down. More than anything you give order to your past. It’s also a way of leaving it behind. But it’s an ongoing process.”

Alexander Newley has had a lot to process. With a highly-sexed father and a sex-goddess mother he grew up surrounded by beautiful women such as Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon. He watched Hollywood cavort. But did the experience leave him, well, normal? “The sixties were a different time,” he explains, smiling. “Very permissive. Very joyous. And people began to look great with fantastic clothes and drugs came in. My father was at the epicentre of all that. My mother was an object of great desire, so I was surrounded by beautiful people and I guess I absorbed that.”

The world was beautiful but no-one was behaving beautifully. Newley’s father, a songwriter who came up with over 40 hits including Goldfinger and Candy Man (he later influenced David Bowie) was, in fact, full of self-loathing. “I think he was an artist first and an entertainer second,” his son explains. “And in the seventies, he was more an artist. Nowadays, more people want to know about him then.”

In 1969, the marriage over, Joan Collins moved back to London with her children to boost her career. Young Sacha was wrecked by the arrangement. “The world wasn’t so small in those days. You didn’t have Skype. But when I (later) saw my dad he had amazing capacity to make up for the absences and fill them to overflowing.” He adds: “I still feel so close to him. His presence was so massive. He was one of those people who, like Sammy Davis, could walk into a room and change the voltage. It’s charisma. But as a kid you feel it.”

Yet, while Collins had had enough of her husband’s flings with (much) younger girls, she never gave up on him. The book includes a letter from Collins to Newley. It’s poignant and touching, reflecting the sadness of their marriage break-up. You don’t have to read too hard between the lines to know she wanted to get back with the often abominable showman. However, her son was well aware this wasn’t likely to happen, given his father’s appetites – and the fact his mother wouldn’t be on her own for too long. Collins’s Achilles’ heel was she needed a man in her life at all times and soon segued into a relationship with record producer Ron Kass.

The children weren’t at the wedding, however, which was emblematic of the separation Sacha and Tara were kept at. Yet, they desperately needed their mother, the actress who would often work on location or simply need to live her own life. They loved her, but described her as a “narcissist” who “abandoned” them. “I just wanted mummy to love me,” said the young voice of Sacha speaking in one of several tracts in the book. “She nourished me in a way a muse nourishes; at a distance.”

While Collins was filming at Hammer, the children were left in the grip, literally, of an enormous, twenty-something nanny called Fat Sue. The book claims Fat Sue would wrestling with young Sacha and getting him to massage her. Does this suggest sexual intent? “There was a lot of S&M,” he acknowledges. “She wouldn’t just sit on me, but sit and grind me into the carpet. Yet I adored her. It was a powerful relationship.”
Did the experience see him sign up immediately for therapy? “I think that my childhood did prepare me for becoming an artist. As you move through your projects you encounter strange forces and intuitions. I’m not squeamish about strangeness. I don’t regret any of it, oddly.”

Alexander Newley chooses to play it down now but the early years living with his mother were often an ordeal. Not surprisingly, he didn’t grow up the average little boy. He was unhappy, would stutter and refused to speak to the psychiatrist his mother took him to see. After four years in England, Collins and co moved back to Los Angeles, and the boy commuted between his parents in a range of different homes. That geographical shift alone must have thrown his head into confusion; one minute he’s living in a quaint Highgate village, the next he’s in Los Angeles. What a trauma for a wee boy? “The analogy I use is my life was full of jump cuts,” he says, grinning. “And it’s true. It’s been like a movie. I became interested in cinema because my life was so like it.”

The young boy would live in large houses and meet Elvis or Rod or Ringo but felt neglected, that he and Tara were “an experiment that failed”.

Newley won’t speak about his current relationship, although it’s likely he’s in one; so much of his life seems to be about a quest for love. “I fell for all my sister’s friends. I’ve always fallen hard,” he admits. But before Collins made it back to the big time with Dynasty, she remained distant. “My mother stalked the house in a self-righteous temper,” he recalls of the return to LA. “Cooking for her kids, doing the school run and entertaining them just wasn’t in Joan Collins’s mission statement.”

There are dismissive notes about his mother throughout the book; he seems to have a coldness towards her, unlike his father, but paradoxically, what strikes as odd is the detail and colour and love he also attaches to his mother. He describes her in ways sons don’t often describe their mum. “Alpha jezebel” and “firebrand”, he writes. And then spends a page describing her put on makeup. It’s almost the mark of a gay man, which he is not. “I would say that young boys do notice that,” he counters. “They don’t hold the information into adulthood, but where artists differ is that the childhood self never really checks out. I have a direct line to the deceptions of the kid in the book, which is why I gave him a voice.”

Aged 11, Alexander walked away from his mother’s perfectly made-up face and took himself off to live with his father. “She had abandoned me to Sue and now I was prepared to abandon her back.” Anthony Newley was performing in cabaret in Las Vegas for much of the time. This meant his son could meet the likes of Elvis (“Black hair dye ran down his pasty white face – he looked all played out – and pissed off”) and receive a white mountain bike from Evel Knievel, which he was much happier about. But the little boy would have been much happier to have his dad at home. Meantime, Collins decided to move back to London to arrest a career and a marriage on the slide. The career would be reprised with soft porn films The Stud and The Bitch, but the marriage hit the skids.

Alexander Newley lived in Los Angeles with his dad for three years, but of course life was never uncomplicated. He didn’t take to his dad’s new air hostess wife and decided he’d come back to England. But not to live with his mother. “I wanted to go some place new,” he maintains. “A place without parents.” Encouraged by Fat Sue, who had come back on the scene briefly, Newley attended boarding school in the Midlands, which is where the book ends.

In spite, or perhaps because of the circumstances of his life, Alexander Newley seems a happy sort. He’ll reflect on how his parents behaved, but doesn’t seem to harbour anger. He says he blames them for their solipsistic behaviour, their inability to put their children before their life-sucking careers, as if this “ogre called showbiz” is somehow not part of their normal character. “I don’t have regrets,” he says of his life so far. “And I have the unique experience of growing up the son of these two amazing creative personalities, at an amazing time of the sixties going into the seventies.”

Anthony Newley died in 1999, aged 67. “My dad is my touchstone,” he says. “He gave my world continuity.” In spite of the frustration/anger/disappointment he felt with his parents, he continues to declare love for both. Joan Collins, he says, is happy with the book, overall. She’s certainly been big enough to support his paintings, particularly his portrait of her, which is certainly revealing. “She hung it in the drawing room and to her credit it’s not for the faint-hearted,” he says, grinning. Indeed, Michael Caine described it as a picture of Doreen Gray. “She’s a trouper,”

Newley says of his mother. “And she’s adorable. She’s very strong and with this worldly persona but she has this vulnerability the public don’t see. And I love her.”

Yes, yes, it’s great you’re not spending fortunes lying on shrink’s couches, Alexander. You seem a level-headed, fairly balanced, talented man. But don’t you ever wish your dad were an electrician and your mum a home help?

“No,” he says, laughing. “I think one of the points of the book is owning the history. You have to take possession of it. There are no victims. And I’m more than happy my parents were both visiting comets.”






Diet has always been a key factor in fending off all sorts of diseases. It is usually children who are nagged to eat their greens but older people are now advised to have green, leafy vegetables every day to ward off memory loss, which can be very annoying and very embarrassing. Researchers have found that a daily serving of greens, including spinach and lettuce, can make someone’s brain affectively eleven years younger. Their study of people aged 58-99 showed those who regularly ate these foods experienced slower decline in memory tests and thinking skills.

Green, leafy vegetables contain many nutrients thought to protect the brain, including vitamins called folates, which block the build-up of proteins in the brain which led to Alzheimer’s developing. Dr Martha Morris, the study’s lead author from Rush University Medical Centre in the US said: ‘Adding a daily serving of green leafy vegetables to your diet may be a simple way to foster your brain health. Projections show sharp increases in the percentage of people with dementia as the oldest age groups continue to grow in number, so effective strategies to prevent dementia are critical. Everyone’s brain deteriorates as they get older, which accounts for middle-age people losing track of words or walking into a room only to wonder why they are there.’

The study was conducted to see if green, leafy vegetables could slow down this cognitive decline. The 960 participants filled out a food questionnaire asking if they ate spinach, kale and lettuce and how many servings they ate – with half a cup counting as one serving. Those who ate the most greens managed an average of around 1.3 servings per day, whilst the least conscientious had only a tenth of a serving daily.

Overall, people’s score on thinking and memory tests declined by 0.08 a year, but as the scientists monitored the volunteers over a decade, they found the rate of decline for those who ate the leafiest greens was slower by 0.05 units per year, than for those who never or rarely ate these foods. This difference was equivalent to being 11 years younger in age. The results remained valid after accounting for other factors that could affect brain health such as high blood pressure, obesity and cognitive activities.

The researchers stress that this did not definitely prove green vegetables improve brain health, however, their nutrients are thought to be good for the brain. Lutein, a natural pigment in green vegetables, is thought to stop inflammation in the brain linked to memory loss, while many studies link folates with protection against dementia.

Commenting on the research, Dr James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society said: ‘It’s no secret that eating vegetables is good for your health. This study found eating green food rich in vitamins like spinach, kale, asparagus and everyone’s favourite – Brussel sprouts – appear to slow cognitive decline as people age.’

The researchers did not directly look at dementia so cannot conclude it might be prevented, but Dr Pickles added; ‘What’s good for the heart is good for the head. A healthy diet rich in essential nutrients combined with regular exercise and avoiding smoking can help to reduce your risk of developing dementia.’

Sound advice for anybody my age – that is if your intention is to remain as sharp as possible and retain a good measure of a reasonably workable brain, in order to maintain you dignity as finality hovers around.


It is comforting to hear that being married could be the key to weathering a midlife crisis because it makes you happier in middle age, researchers say. From the age of 41-55 our satisfaction with life drastically plummets as we juggle work and family and question the meaning of life. Having a spouse, however, makes you less unhappy during this tricky time because it eases the stresses of middle age, a study has found. And those whose husbands or wives are also their best friend see almost twice the boost to their wellbeing.

Canadian researchers looked at the U-shaped curve in happiness, which sees life satisfaction fall from the 20s through to middle age before rebounding again in older age. They found marriage protects against the sadness slump in middle age based on surveys of almost 360,000 British people. Co-author Professor John Halliwell, from Vancouver School of Economics, said: ‘Marriage may help ease the causes of midlife dip in life satisfaction and the benefits of marriage are likely to be short-lived. Even after years, the married are still more satisfied. This suggests a causal effect at all stages of the marriage from pre-nuptial bliss to marriages of long duration. Middle age is the time when, so the stereotype goes, the dissatisfied buy a sports car or start an affair. But the slump in satisfaction appears far worse for single people.’

The research, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, gathered data from the British Household Panel Survey, taking in around 36,000 participants between 1991 and 2009, and the UK’s Annual Population 2011-13 Survey, involving more than 328,000 participants. Together, the surveys asked questions about satisfaction with life overall, how worthwhile people felt things to be, their happiness and anxiety. The life satisfaction scale of 0-10 shows a fall to just about 6.5 for life-long unmarried people between the ages of 46-55. But that rises to more than 7 for those who have been married. The authors’ state: ‘One potential explanation for this result is that the social support provided by a spouse helps ease the stresses of middle age. Previous studies also show married people are more sociable, healthier, better educated and have more engaging jobs. The boost from being married is even more noticeable in those who their spouse is their closest friend – approximately half of married people.’

Professor Halliwell said: ‘The wellbeing benefits of marriage are much greater for those who also regard their spouse as their best friend. These benefits are on average about twice as large for people whose spouse is also their best friend. Previous research suggests people receive only a short term rise in life satisfaction from marrying. However, the increased satisfaction from being married or living with a partner lasted in this study well beyond the so-called ‘honeymoon phase’ of a marriage, into old age.’ The authors conclude marriage seems to be most important in middle age, when people of every marital status experience a dip in wellbeing.

Well, I’m glad to hear that marriage has regained its importance for both the comfort of husband and wife, so long as the union proves to be a real loving one and not simply for convenience state. I personally had the good fortune of meeting and marrying a woman for 60 blessed years whose death two years ago shattered my entire existence, However, I now feel that she hasn’t forsaken me but keeps a watchful eye over me, as if she never left.

No Longer With Us


Hugh Trevor-Roper was born in 15 January 1914 – 26 January 2003 and educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1947 he won international recognition for his book The Last Days of Hitler, a reconstruction based on research on behalf of British forces in occupied Germany. He was regius professor of modern history and fellow of Oriel College, Oxford 91857-80) and had published on a wide range of topics, including medieval Christendom, European witch-hunting, the Kennedy assassination, the Kim Philby affair and the Scottish Enlightenment. In a rare misjudgement he championed the authenticity of the so-called Hitler diaries until their fraudulence was revealed. He was a director of Times Newspapers between 1974 and 1988 and he was made a life peer in 1979.


I interviewed him in the late 1990s and here is the substance of what he told me.
Why exactly did you choose the title Dacre? I gather it upset the wife of William Douglas-Home who already had the title Lady Dacre and is a baroness in her own right.
That is right. I chose it after consulting the Garter King of Arms. It was a title which had been in my family, so Garter considered it was reasonable for me to take it, provided it was differentiated by being of something. And so it became Lord Dacre of Glanton.

Did you predict that you would upset Lady Dacre by choosing that title?

No. Time was short but I rang her up and asked her if she had any objections. She said she had none, so I went ahead. Parliament was going into recess and it therefore had to go through at once, so once she had agreed I told the Garter, and it was duly registered. By the time she expressed second thoughts it was too late. When I reminded her that she had had no objection, she said that she had been suffering from mussel poisoning at the times and hadn’t really been herself. We had a correspondence afterwards which was at times animated, but in the end she wrote me a very charming letter and peace was restored.

You have spent most of your life in the universities. There is quite a lot of talk at present about grading universities in such a way that only some of them do research. To an outsider the whole idea of research in, say, Greek noun phrases or the negative in Middle English seems a strange one. What is it for in your view?

Knowledge does not advance on any front without research. A university without a research side is like a hospital which has no teaching branch to it; it tends to stay put. You make a legitimate point in that some subjects are not worth researching into; research can become a fetish and like all professional subjects it is in danger of over-professionalization, with academics writing for other academics on smaller and smaller topics. That is an inherent danger in any research unless it is carefully controlled. People build empires out of research and sometimes the conquests are not worth making. But research is the basis of a university; otherwise it is simply a school.

What sort of duties did you undertake during the war? I know that you were with the security service, but what did that entail?

You must know I’m subject to the new official secrets act. However, I can say that I came to be in the security service by accident, that is to say I came to work on the activities of the German secret service, which was not what was intended for me. My superior officer and I discovered and identified the radio communications of the German secret service which created a great convulsion in the intelligence world. We were then moved into the secret service proper, and from then on we became an essential part of the business of reading and working out the organization of the German intelligence services.

Among you colleagues in the security service was Kim Philby. It rather undermines one’s confidence to discover that our security service not only catches spies but recruits them. How were people recruited in those days? To an outsider it all has the air of ‘there’s this chap I know’, and so many turned out to be duds.

I think it is true that at the beginning of the war and before, the secret intelligence service, MI6 was recruited on a personal basis by people of rather limited experience. They couldn’t advertise of course, and the people chosen were not always ideal. Accidents happened.

In your own case, how were you recruited?

I was recruited because of the work which we had already done. The secret service judged it essential to keep control of this work which had been done outside the secret service, and therefore I was moved as part of an organizational change. I was not chosen personally.

But how did this work start in the first place?

Accidentally. I was drafted at first and had a territorial commission. We were given a task which had nothing whatever to do with intelligence but by chance we made a huge discovery. To begin with no one would take it seriously, and consequently my superior officer and I worked on it in the evenings privately in our flat which we shared, and we deciphered the messages. It was a very simple cipher and I’m not claiming any great achievement, but once it was realized that we had discovered the operations of the German secret service, there was quite a storm. We were severely rebuked for making the discovery, and even more so for having deciphered it.
How do you think people ought to be recruited for such services? Is there, do you think, any way of ensuring loyalty, or at any rate of limiting the damage of disloyalty?

I don’t know of any infallible test which would exclude the wrong people. I myself was astonished when Philby joined SIS. I was already there and was surprised to hear people talk with great enthusiasm about his appointment. I knew that Philby had been a communist.

You knew then?

Yes, but I was as wrong as everybody else, only in a different way. Lots of people, my friends included, had been communists at university, but it was not taken seriously. It was a passing phase, and it all evaporated at the time of the Russo-German pact. I considered that our superior officers in the security service were often unreasonable, seeing reds under the bed all the time, and turning down clever people on the grounds that they had left-wing views. When Philby joined I was rather glad someone had got through the net. It never occurred to me that he was a communist still, even less that he would be a communist spy. So we were all mistaken on this. Recruiting policy, however, was not the only thing that kept able people out. It wasn’t a job in the usual sense, in that you couldn’t talk about your work, not even to your wife, it was not well paid because the budget was small, you disappeared in the morning, came back in the afternoon, and it led nowhere. It was not a very glamorous job unless you lived in a world of fantasy, in the Bulldog Drummond, Philip Oppenheim kind of world, which of course some of them did. People were therefore chosen out of a rather limited pool; they generally had some money of their own and they often lacked normal ambition. I was pretty censorious about them at the time, though I came to perceive the difficulties inherent in the situation. Nowadays of course recruitment is on a different basis; it’s no longer done in clubs.

If money was not the motivating factor, did people join for a sense of adventure?

I suppose it was adventure of a kind, at least for people who joined in peacetime. In wartime we didn’t so much join as end up there. I made a distinction between the armatures and the professionals. The armatures thought, and were blamed for thinking, in short terms; we wanted to win the war and we had no long-term aims, but the grandees of the service tended to regard the war as an inconvenient interruption and were determined not to allow the amateurs to burst the system. Philby was obviously determined to stay a professional, and he played the professional game. We made nuisances of ourselves since we didn’t care if we were kicked out, but Philby didn’t cause trouble; he was ingratiating and very competent. I don’t think he did us any harm during the war. He did afterwards, but if he did pass information to the Russians during the war, they either had it anyway, or they didn’t use it. I doubt if he actually did anything dangerous or contrary to British policy or aims during the war.

Setting aside the war, how much harm do you think Philby, Blunt and company actually did?

It’s difficult to be sure in concrete terms. One can of course say that they gave a bad name to their service, they spread distrust and suspicion and did a great deal of harm within their own world, the society to which they belonged. They certainly damaged the aims and interests of the British government and the West as they were at that time. It is possible, for example, that Albania would not have fallen so completely into the communist grip if it hadn’t been for Philby revealing the operations of the SIS or the CIA. Equally, you can look back on it and say, well, perhaps it wasn’t decisive after all, perhaps the CIA and SIS operations were rather madcap. Some people were killed, but then Philby would have said that the secret service involves everybody taking risks, and it’s the luck of the game. Another thing Philby did quite early on was to prevent the exposure of the Russian espionage system in Britain. There was a Russian defector to Istanbul called Ivanov who offered to provide the British government with the names of the Russian agents operating in the British intelligence world. If that information had reached the right people it would have exposed Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean at an early date, but Philby had got himself into the position of being able to take charge of the matter. He obviously informed the Russians, who kidnapped Ivanov and he’s never been heard of since. There’s no doubt that he was shot. In this way Philby protected himself and the others from exposure.

When you reflected on why it should have been Cambridge rather than Oxford that produced communist spies in the 1930s you blamed a certain puritan high-mindness, but in itself that is surely no bad thing. What was it that narrowed that outlook to the point of treason?
I don’t know. Supposing there had been a high-powered Russian recruiter operating in Oxford, can I be sure that he wouldn’t have found Philbys there? I honestly can’t answer that. That puritanism, however, that extraordinary self-satisfaction which I do ascribe to Cambridge is lacking in Oxford. People don’t take themselves so seriously at Oxford. Cambridge people issue writs against each other inside the university, which I find laughable. There is a world in Cambridge which takes itself extremely seriously, and if you do that, it’s a stage nearer deciding that your conscience is more imperative than convention, humanity and loyalty to the government. It’s that kind of high-mindedness which I ascribe to Cambridge.

The present government’s determination to maintain secrecy at every level appears to many people to be perverse. Do you think it right that the defence of national interests should be barred in that anyone who has gone through ‘the proper channels’ with suspicions about Philby or Maclean or Blunt would have got nowhere?

Many people have found their way round these restrictions; sometimes they do it by going through the proper channels and sometimes they do it by knowing how to create interest in the right quarters. For all I know it may sometimes be done with official encouragement. I hold the view that most secrets are in print if you know where to look for them, and half the time the secrecy rules are merely a means of preventing the public knowing what is already known to the foreign governments from which ostensibly it is being concealed. For instance, during the war, and indeed until recently, one couldn’t even name the head of the British secret service, nor could people say that anyone was in it, yet the entire professional staff of the secret service was known by name in Germany and had been publicised in the German press in October 1939. I have seen it for myself and they were all named.

Were they accurate?

Absolutely accurate, and I know exactly how they came by the names. Right at the beginning of the war agents from the German secret service lured two British secret-service officers in the Netherlands to the frontier under the pretence of being the representatives of an anti-Hitler group. They then kidnapped them by force and carried them off to Berlin. The British officers were kept prisoner throughout the war, and under interrogation they revealed all the facts. When I was in Berlin in 1945 I found in the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters a secret document which set out the structure of the British intelligence services and ascribed its knowledge, some of which was coloured by German fantasy, to these two men. But MI6 knew perfectly well that all their names had been blown away because Himmler, after the seizure of these two officers, had made a public speech about information received, and this was then reported in the German press.
Of course I can see that one doesn’t want to encourage too much curiosity into the operations of the secret service which, whatever one says about it, does have its useful functions – we live in a world of terrorism after all – but I do think it’s carried too far and that the secret services tend to breed within themselves a separation from reality. I’ve known several cases of people who have simply become fantasists, and Peter Wright of course is an instance. A kind of mania can develop, a paranoia, a sort of mini-McCarthyism which feeds on itself.

Why do you think the government went to such lengths to ban Wright’s book?

I cannot say. I think it was mad, but I don’t know where the move came from. I suppose it grew gradually and was probably a question of pride. They started by thinking they could stop it at a lower level without any fuss, and then when that failed, they had to stop it at a slightly higher level. But it was absurd, because he lived outside the jurisdiction and he could publish outside the jurisdiction.

Do you think fascism has really been put behind us? The neo-Nazi movement seems to be gaining ground in an alarming way now.

People are misled by words. What is meant by fascism? Fascism and Nazism were quite different, although fascism was taken prisoner by Nazism in the course of the war. Mussolini’s regime was not anti-Semitic until it fell under German control, yet anti-Semitism was absolutely central to German Nazism. They are different movements with different origins, and yet we call them both fascism. Since I’m something of a pedant, I like words to be used so that one can argue on the basis of them, and therefore they must be used accurately. I believe that the movements we knew in the 1930s which reached their head in the war are dead, because they were inseparable from a particular political conjuncture which is now over and which will never be repeated in the same form. If by fascism we mean the Italian fascism of Mussolini, and if by Nazism we mean the German Nazism of Hitler with its total philosophy and aims, they cannot happen again. But if we use the terms in a vulgar way, meaning thuggery, right-wing xenophobia, brutality, stamping on the lower classes and so on, that is a far more generalized thing, and is liable to break out at any time.

At present there are some historians, such as David Irving, suggesting that Nazi atrocities were either the result of Allied propaganda or were grossly exaggerated. Will it ever be possible, do you think, to rewrite history, given the pressures for European unity?

Assuming that Europe, whether united or disunited, remains liberal, and that we have free press and free exchange of information, I don’t think that historical revisionism of that kind is possible. History is always being revised, but it’s revised from within rational norms; when we have more evidence, and different documents are produced, we see things from a slightly different point of view, but assuming a certain honesty in the historical profession, that is not a sign of perversity, it’s just a sign of what is always happening.

But isn’t history largely a matter of interpretation?

Yes, but what historians call historical revision is reinterpretation of agreed objective evidence, whereas what people like David Irving are trying to do is to rewrite history in defiance of the evidence. They thereby exploit legitimate revisionism in order to argue a political thesis, which in my opinion is unarguable. Their interpretations are scandalous, not honest.

Do you think the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during the war could have been exaggerated?

In the First World War there had been atrocity-mongering which afterwards was proved to have been false, and therefore there were people during the Second World War who did not believe all the talk of atrocities which they fully expected to be disproved afterwards. But one of the advantages of the Nuremberg trials was that it put the evidence on the record in a way in which it couldn’t be contested. After the First World War the victorious allies didn’t occupy Germany, they didn’t change the government of Germany, they didn’t confiscate or even have access to German secret documents, and therefore the Germans were able to build up the theory of the stab in the back, the myths on which Nazism afterwards fed. In 1945 it was different: Germany was totally defeated and occupied, documents were seized and trials were held, and whatever one may say about the trials, the fact is that all the documents that were produced were put to the court and could be ruled illegitimate or irrelevant. The defence had lawyers whose business it was to disprove allegations if they could, and no German historian has suggested that the documents used at Nuremberg were not valid documents. The evidence is public and has been agreed and cannot be contested, and that is the great difference between the post-1945 position in relation to history and the post-1918 position. So I don’t think that revisionism which exploits the mood of incredulity or the desire for European unity, or the wish to forget the past to the extent of negating well-established and undeniable facts, I don’t think that is a possibility now.

I gather you read Mein Kampf in the original when you worked for intelligence. What sort of impression did it make on you at the time?

That’s not quite true. I read Mein Kampf in German in 1938 as a consequence of an article by Ensor, a very able historian, who had been prophesying that there would be a major international crisis resolved either by European war or by a climbdown by the West in the autumn of 1938. One thing he said was that the beginning of wisdom in international affairs was to read Mein Kampf, and that it had to be read in German because it was not fully translated. People at that time tended to regard Hitler as a mere froth-blowing demagogue, nasty, but slightly comic, whereas Ensor was claiming he was very dangerous. That article decided me to read Mein Kampf in the original. I could see it was the work of a man with a powerful mind who had already achieved much of what he had threatened to achieve and showed no signs of weakness of any kind. It was a coherent ideology, a horrible one but nevertheless coherent, and I decided that it was serious. And I became rather serious myself in consequence; I’d led rather a frivolous life up to that time, but I reckoned then that we were in for a war. I did not believe as many others did that Hitler was a clown, a mere adventurer. He was a gangster, though not only a gangster; he was a dangerous and effective political force.

How do you view someone like Lady Diana Mosley who admired Hitler and believes that many of the atrocities attributed to him are not possible?

She is one of those people who think that because somebody is polite and considerate to her personally, he can’t possibly be a criminal. The world is full of people who are conned by confidence tricksters, ladies who listen to honeyed words and can’t imagine such a nice person having another side to him. I once wrote a review of an article about Goebbels, and she wrote a letter of protest, saying how monstrously I had misrepresented Goebbels. She said she had often dined with Goebbels and his wife who were such kind hosts and conversation was so agreeable and they lived in quite modest style. It was the same with Hitler. I’m afraid she’s just a gull, as was her sister Unity.

Do you think the last war was the inevitable outcome of the Versailles Treaty?

The Treaty of Versailles provided the excuse. The real reason was that the Germans did not believe that they were defeated. They were of course defeated, but there’s a difference between defeat and recognizing defeat. The ruling classes maintained that they have been deprived of victory; and in the spring of 1918, just as in 1940, they considered they had won the war, and couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t then surrender. And then suddenly at the end of 1918, they were totally defeated, which came as a great shock. The entire organization of propaganda, the doctoring of documents, even before Hitler, shows that they were determined that this be rectified. They needn’t have done it by war; they could have tried to build up German power and negotiate from strength. But Hitler wanted war; he was an all-or-nothing man, and he was determined that it could be done only in his lifetime. It was the same argument used in 1914, that Russia was going to be too powerful and that the social basis of Germany had to be changed. This is where anti-Semitism comes in. Hitler’s complaint in Mein Kampf is that the Kaiser’s Germany was a Byzantine Judaized aristocratically-run incompetent Germany; it had all the German virtues of racial and military strength, if only it had been properly led. In order to be sure of victory this useless aristocracy had to be eliminated and replaced by an organization based on blood. He really believed in race and blood, and elimination of the Jews. According to Hitler the social structure had to be changed in order to liberate the full energies of Germany and then, led by him, they could win. That was the real cause of the war, in my opinion.

What do you consider the origin of anti-Semitism to be. Is there a definitive historical explanation, or is it specifically religious and cultural?

I’ve thought a good deal about this, and I’m sure that it is not religious. In the Middle Ages there was anti-Semitism in Germany and in Spain, and it was religiously based. The Jews were the people who had crucified Christ and had refused to accept Christianity, and were consequently public enemy no. 1. But in the eighteenth century this sectarian attitude dissolved with the weakening of religion and religious persecution; and yet anti-Semitism didn’t disappear. In the nineteenth century it revived with vengeance and adapted to an industrial society, this time not for religious reasons at all, but on the basis of blood. This was equally irrational, because there is no such thing as Jewish blood. The only way you can define a Jew is by religion. Hitler had no interest in religion, Jewish or Christian. His problem was how to identify Jews among German lawyers or German police, or indeed Germans in general. It was simple when Jews had come in from Poland, for example, and were called Moses or Abraham, but among Germans how could you distinguish who was a Jew and who wasn’t? The only way to distinguish them was by religion; and in this way we have the phenomenon that anti-Semitism survives its particular explanations. Different rationalizations are produced at different times, but one has to ask, what is the real basis of it? My own theory is that it is the determination inherent in the human race to find a scapegoat for one’s misfortunes, particularly in an unassimilable group in society. They may be religious dissenters, they may be as in the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people who just don’t mix, who don’t fit in, who make their neighbours uncomfortable, who seem to belong to a different world. Any minority group is liable to persecution, even genocide. Often the unassimilable group is relatively prosperous, like the Armenians, or Parsees in India, or the Ismailis in East Africa, or even the Quakers in England; they’re shut in on themselves, perhaps they don’t even try to become assimilated, so they concentrate on business and they become rich, and in turn they become envied. The Jews single themselves out, and they fit into all these categories, and that is my explanation.

I believe you covered the Eichmann trial for the Sunday Times. Did you undertake the work as a historian, or was it primarily a journalistic assignment?

I was asked to go by the Sunday Times and was glad to do so for my own education. (I had attended the Nuremberg Trials, and I afterwards attended the Auschwitz Trials in Frankfurt.) I was interested both in the revelations in the evidence, and in the procedure. I had been in Israel before and was interested to see the way in which the Israelis would handle the trial.

Your historical researches have covered a number of periods. Which has given you the most satisfaction?

Although I have studied and written about Nazi Germany, it does not give me satisfaction. I find it in some ways a repulsive subject and I have not allowed myself to be tied to it. If I’m an expert in anything I suppose it is sixteenth-and seventeenth-century history, but I don’t really think in ‘periods’. I came to the conclusion at one time that political history is really rather small beer; seeing people digging deeper and deeper into a petty cabinet crisis in eighteenth-century English politics – I found that poor stuff. Humanity does not live for this, I thought, and I gradually found myself more drawn to intellectual history. So rather than being interested in a particular period, I’m interested in a particular side of history, the intellect of man rather than the politics. I consider that intellectual history is not separable from its context in practical history; that is to say, ideas do not develop out of previous ideas. This is falsely maintained by professional intellectual historians who, as it were, follow an idea from one generation to another as if people read the books of their predecessors but didn’t live in the context of the present. I’m Marxist to the extent that I would allow that ideas are conditioned by the context, which means that one is going to understand the intellectual views of this century, and the same is true of any other century.

I understand that your political antennae were developed in the thirties but gradually your imagination was captured more by academic rather than political intrigue. How did this come about?

I find this a rather offensive question. It implies that I am only interested in ‘intrigue’ and merely changed direction within that constant. I am not interested in intrigue. If I have occasionally found myself in controversy it has always been open – perhaps too open for my own good (but that, in my opinion, is because I am a victim of the media!) My answer to the substantive question – how did I come to prefer academic to political life (not intrigue) is quite simple. I was an undergraduate at a very political college – several of my friends and several of the dons went into politics – and I did at one time think of a political career. Munich made politics very actual to me. But then came the war; and during the war I decided that my real interest was in literature and the study of history. I also valued my independence, or perhaps my ease. The thought of constituents, ‘surgeries’, public meetings, party conferences, whips (not to say scorpions) repelled me. I also loved country life and shrank from smoke-filled rooms in London. I’m afraid I was rather indolent in those days.

You are a distinguished historian, so I ask this question rather diffidently. Why does history matter? I can see that chemistry, physics, medicine, computer technology, agriculture, even perhaps psychology, have real consequences, but history seems to fall into a different category. By the time we meditate on the past it’s all over. The study of literature may make us aware of the way language is used to manipulate, but it sometimes seems as if the clashing opinions of historians only catalogue possible past mistakes…

I agree with Gibbon who says that history is little else than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. I nevertheless think that it is worth studying because I think that nations are conditioned even though they may not recognize this by their history. If one cuts oneself off from one’s history, one is losing a capacity to understand the present, or indeed perhaps the future, not that anyone can understand the future but at least you can speculate. I also think that the study of history enriches the study of thought and art and literature. If somebody totally ignorant of his history goes round a picture gallery, let us say, and relies entirely on his aesthetic sense, his appreciation is entirely different. I’m not saying that paintings should be studied solely as historical documents, because obviously they have an aesthetic quality which transcends that context, but I do think that appreciation is deepened and made intelligent and articulate by an understanding of history.

Historians are constrained by facts, but even in the selection of which facts to highlight, there is a degree of interpretation involved. Since interpretation is necessarily subjective, do you think there can be such a thing as a correct perspective in history?

No, and indeed I don’t want there to be. Interest in history really depends to a large extent on the problems which it raises, and the idea that it can be reduced to a science as people thought about 1900 (and the Marxist continue to maintain) is very perverse in my opinion. The attempts to reduce it to a science have all failed and now look very ridiculous. History is made up of continued pressures and options and mistakes. At every point in history there are decisions to be made; decisions can be wrong in a technical sense, I will allow this, if they are simply impossible in the context of the times, but one cannot say that there are no alternatives, that there is a course specifically plotted, because there is no such course. And indeed that is the interest of it; that is what makes it a living subject, not a dead subject.

What is your view of the relationship between history and biography. Are they very different animals, or can they be ‘cross bred’?

I think they can be cross bred. A biography reduced to mere biography would be a very jejune affair. Of course I can envisage a biography of some unimportant shoemaker in Nottingham simply describing his life in shoemaking, but that’s not of great moment. He may be a very worthy person but it’s not of much interest. But the greatness of an intellectual or artistic figure depends on his response to his times. You can’t detach the biography altogether from the context.

There has been rather disturbing work done in France in recent years which seems to undermine the legitimacy of history. I’m thinking of the views of men like Jacques Derrida and Foucault. Is there any answer to the charge that we make history in our own image?

I think this is a defeatist view. We write history in a more social way than that, we test our arguments against other people’s arguments, whether in books or in discussion. Obviously there are subjective interpretations, but honest historians try to discover an objectivity. I’m afraid I’m not in love with Derrida and Foucault.

It would not be too far from the truth to say that you are anti-clerical. Is it that you think priests hypocrites or fools?

I’d have you know that I am a doctor of divinity. I don’t think I’m particularly anti-clerical, but I’ve long ago given up thinking what I am. People say that I’m so many different things that I’ve decided to let them say it. It’s true I don’t like folly combined with persecution, and I can’t take theological doctrine very seriously. I regard it as at best legitimate myth to which one pays lip service but one doesn’t engage one’s mind with it. I find it rather absurd when the clergy involve themselves with abstruse doctrines, when they give themselves airs and try to dictate to us or to persecute us or to persecute each other; then I’m anti-clerical I daresay, but I don’t feel anti-clerical.

Are you a believer?

I think the answer is no. If you mean, do I believe the content of the Athanasian Creed, no I certainly don’t. Do I believe in the Virgin Birth, certainly not.

Do you believe in God?

I’m a sort of eighteenth century deist really. I would adopt the position of Voltaire and Gibbon.

My research would seem to indicate you are anti-Catholic … and that you reserve a particular dislike for convert to Catholicism.

The great Lord Halifax, George Savile, said at the end of the seventeenth century that the impudence of a bawd is modesty compared with that of a convert. I often think of this when I meet certain converts. They also tend to revile the church from which they have been converted, which is a form of intolerance I dislike. I was fairly anti-Catholic at the time when the Catholic Church was ruled by Pope Pius XI, whom I regarded as one of the more disastrous figures of this century. The Papacy was responsible for the dictatorship of both Mussolini and Hitler. I know that is a very serious charge, but it is one I can document. If it hadn’t been for the activity of Pope Pius XI in suddenly forbidding priests to take part in politics, thereby wrecking the Christian Democrat Party, Mussolini would not have been able to take power in Italy. And if it hadn’t been for his persuading the Centre Party in Germany to vote for the Enabling Act which gave Hitler his dictatorial powers, he could not have become a legitimate dictator. The Papacy wanted to get a concordat with Italy and Germany which it would never have achieved if it had had to operate through a liberal government dependent on a parliament containing agnostics, protestants and so on; but it could do a bargain with a dictator. Of course Hitler and Mussolini both broke the concordats, but the Papacy was silly in making them; it should have realized it was dealing with crooks.

But do you see a role for the church in politics nowadays?

I think the church’s intervention in day-to-day politics is generally disastrous. I sometimes listen in the House of Lords to bishops making speeches on subjects about which they seem to me to know very little. I draw a veil over that; there’s quite enough for the church to do outside politics.

They should be saving souls, you mean…

Precisely, though saving souls is a metaphor. I don’t mean that they should be forcing their particular doctrines on people.

There have surely been good men and women who drew their strength from their faith. Why do you think so many people turn to religion? The Soviet Union tried to suppress it for seventy years without success.

People come to the conclusion, which is a legitimate one, that the purpose of life is not political orthodoxy, not even political success, that politics and public life contain a great deal of ambition and hypocrisy, and that if we have a purpose in life it should be rather higher. We have at times to think of what are vulgarly called higher things, and religion is a kind of distillation of one’s loftier aspirations; the trouble is that it is distilled into such an extraordinary crystallized from that is difficult to take, or it becomes sectarianism, or a sort of conventional sanctimonious church-going. To put it bluntly, I think that one needs an awareness of a metaphysical dimension in order not to be absorbed in what may be at best dreary and at worst dishonourable courses.

Do you think that your attitudes towards religion ever put you at a disadvantage professionally? I am thinking of occasions such as attendance at conferences like the proposed one at the Vatican on Eastern Europe.

It has never occurred to me that my views on religion were objectionable or even eccentric. I am not irreligious. I do not believe, with Freud, that religion is an ‘illusion’ which can be ‘ended’ by psychoanalysis. Rather, I regard psychoanalysis as a superstitious illusion. I consider that a sense of religion is necessary to a complete man: it is a framework giving metaphysical coherence to the natural and mortal world, the primitive myths which it retains having been converted into metaphor. Of course I do not believe these myths – who does? – but I am happy to accept them as metaphors representing the mysteries of nature and the human condition, insoluble as intellectual problems. I regard theology – the attempt to create a system out of these myths – as absurd: an absolute historical curiosity; but I get on perfectly well with (sensible) clergy, whom I regard with respect as a useful body of men – provided they don’t pontificate or persecute.

You’re a conservative, but of what sort? Are you an old Macmillan conservative with what one might call a sense of obligation, or one of the newer Thatcherite type?

I can’t quite answer that. I approve of Mrs Thatcher in as much as I think she saw that a moment had come when consensus had been turned into a continuing slide of appeasement; it was no longer a consensus from a position of rationality and strength. I was therefore in favour of her strong measures. On the other hand, I think there is an unacceptable side of Thatcherism, a kind of ruthlessness which I find unattractive.

So you’re more of a Macmillan conservative?

I am, but Harold Macmillan did sell the pass in a way. He believed, or behaved as if he believed, that one could always go on yielding a bit more for the sake of consensus, but consensus is a game at which two have to play, otherwise it loses its reality. If the trade unions on one side believe in pursuit of power at the expense of consensus, then it’s got to stop. I was a director of The Times when it was losing millions and faced ruin. The unions were totally unappeasable, and what were described euphemistically as ‘old Spanish practises’ were rife – people drawing salaries under false names for no work, and so on. They thought they had the management in their hands and that somehow this gravy train would go on for ever, on the grounds that the Thomson Organisation which was then in charge was so rich from its other activities that it would go on paying this Danegeld for ever. Rupert Murdoch turned that round by being as rough to the unions as the unions had been rough to the Thomson Organisation. I think a consensus has to depend on a willingness of both sides to consent, and that had been sacrificed in the Macmillan period.

You have a reputation for being something of a dandy…

Oh really? My wife would be very surprised to hear me described as a dandy. I did read somewhere that I gave a tutorial in hunting clothes, but it is a complete myth.

Is it fair to say you are a social climber?

I don’t think so. I like intelligent people really. I have moved in bits of the beau monde, that I admit.

Would you consider yourself a snob?

Yes, I am in a way. Except that I don’t take it seriously. I think snobbism is a harmless affectation. To say that somebody is a snob tout court is not an offensive thing; it’s rather like saying that somebody is interested in going to race meetings. I’m interested in the diversity of humankind, but yes, I quite like sophisticated parties.

Well, that’s no sin. In 1957 when you gave your inaugural lecture as regius professor of History, I understand that a notice appeared on the board to the effect that your lecture was cancelled and that A.J.P. Taylor was lecturing in your place. This was presumably symptomatic of the animosity and rivalry between you … what was the origin of those feelings?

First of all, it isn’t true. It was entirely invented by the press, and Alan Taylor objected to it as much as I did. We were always friends and we differed only on the thesis of his book The Origins of the Second World War. The book became a succès de scandale and because I’d reviewed it critically I had to appear on television with him and the whole thing was blown up by the press. Alan and I both got very bored by it. There was an issue about which we dissented, as scholars are entitled to dissent from each other, but the rest is a myth.

But was he expected to be appointed at the time instead of you?

Well, yes. It is true that Alan was tipped, and, being a vain man, he believed he was really entitled to it. This was what surprised me about Alan: generally speaking he adopted a tolerant attitude towards history, he accepted that everything is chance, anything can happen, there is no directing purpose in it, that things always turn out differently from what is expected – this was really his basic, rather nihilistic philosophy. But the one point where he failed to apply it was to his own history. Deducing from his general historical attitudes I would have expected Alan to say, well I expected to be made regius professor, but the right person is never appointed, things never turn out as we expect, well, that’s how things go … but he never applied this attitude to himself. He considered that he was entitled to the chair, that he was the most distinguished person in the running and that it was a miscarriage of justice. But he never blamed me for this; he blamed Harold Macmillan. Later he said he would not have accepted it from this hand stained with the blood of Suez.

Talking of Harold Macmillan, what prompted you to promote him as candidate for the chancellorship of Oxford in opposition to Lord Franks? Did you not feel that it would be interpreted as a quid pro quo? After all he had appointed you.

I don’t really care about what people say, but I certainly didn’t like the way Maurice Bowra had pushed through the nomination of Franks (whom I respect). After Lord Halifax died, the vice chancellor took ill, and Maurice became acting vice chancellor. Maurice was a bully, quite an agreeable bully, but a bully nevertheless, and he always fought to win. He summoned a meeting of the heads of houses who were all very feeble, and he simply railroaded Franks through. I wasn’t there, of course, but I had full accounts, and Maurice was so determined to get his candidate appointed that he simply vetoed other names in his brutal way. When Lord Salisbury was mentioned, for example, Maurice said, ‘He’s no friend to this university,’ and moved on to the next man. Harold Macmillan, who after all was prime minister, a distinguished man and a scholar, a man of intellectual interests who would have been very suitable , was never even mentioned. I thought that this was improper. I had means of communicating with Harold who was in South Africa at the time, and I asked him if he would be willing to stand. He sent back a message to me, saying, ‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure. I shall not shrink from the contest.’ Those were his very words. It was a very enjoyable contest.

Was it a real battle?

It was rather a good battle because Harold won, yet it was not humiliating for Franks. And Maurice Bowra was furious. There was no nonsense about a secret ballot, and he sat there receiving the votes, examining each one, and either scowling or beaming.

Do you ever regret going to Peterhouse?

That’s a difficult question. On the whole I value experience by what I learn from it. I learned something at Peterhouse, and I made many friends there, especially among the scientists, but I’d rather not say too much about Peterhouse.

Peterhouse is well known for reaffirming the importance of high politics and intellectual movement against the fashionable concentration on the grass roots and the masses. Is this something you applaud?

No. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable point of view, but in Peterhouse it was combined with politics so reactionary that I found them both ridiculous and rather offensive.

People have said of you that in the background of your life and career there lurks a book, the magnum opus that you didn’t write. Is that something that worries you?

Not greatly. I would like to have written a great work … who wouldn’t … but when I consider historical writing I see that it very quickly perishes and if it’s any good it is boiled down into an article. Students of history have not read the books that they talk about; they’ve only read concentrations of the argument.

You were, I believe, the author of the wonderfully funny series in the Spectator under the pseudonym Mercurious Oxoniensis.

I know nothing about Mercurious.

You weren’t involved in it at all?

I’ve heard people suggest I was involved, but I’ve never acknowledged it.

But you were the author?

Well, you’ve said so. I haven’t. I don’t contest whatever people say about me.

Do you deny that you are the author of it?

[Laughs.] Yes.

Is that a half-hearted denial?

No. Toto animo.

You are of course a member of the House of Lords. Do you think it proper in the late twentieth century that there should be an unelected body of legislators, however distinguished, in parliament?

I see nothing wrong in an unelected body. The hereditary principle I admit is very difficult to defend. But it’s irreformable in a way, and any replacement would, of course, be liable to different objections. The House of Lords carries some fat, if one may use the phrase, but then so does the House of Commons. The Lords is much more of a real debating chamber than the Commons, because there’s not so much of a party side to it.

Do you think it will ever be possible to forge a real federal state in Europe out of the animosities of the last thousand years?

Neither possible nor desirable. I am very much a pluralist and I consider that the pluralism of Europe is what has been the essential feature, if not cause, of its superiority. The various states have distinct identities, irreconcilable attitudes, which compete against each other and these have been the main factors in Europe’s effervescence and efflorescence, and I don’t wish to see it all homogenized. I support the idea of a free trade area in order that Europe may pull its weight in the world, but that does not mean that it should be ruled by an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, establishing identical norms everywhere.

You must sometimes reflect ironically on the forged Hitler diaries when you recall your own work on Backhaus. In the appendix of your book you list ‘three learned forgers’. Is that something which made matters worse for you?

No, I didn’t think about it. What was traumatic was my inability to prevent extracts being published, which was due to complicated muddles at The Times. I couldn’t stop the process which was forced by a series of episodes outside my control. When the business blew up I decided the only honourable thing to do was to state publicly that I had made a mistake, although I had tried to remedy the mistake and had been prevented from doing so. The mistake wasn’t the one I was accused of making, but still, I said I had made a mistake, and I thought naïvely that the other people whose responsibility had been far greater than mine would admit their part in it. But not at all; they all turned on me and kept completely silent about their own involvement, and regarded me as a sort of expendable scapegoat. All the media persecution was concentrated on me, and the rest sat smugly behind their barriers. That was a shock. It lowered my opinion of human behaviour. One likes to feel that people are honourable, and it’s painful to find that they aren’t.

Your enemies of course delighted in your mistake. You have always maintained that other people’s opinions of you were of little importance. Is that really the case, or have you put a brave front on it?

No. Long before that episode I decided that other people’s opinions, within limits, are not of interest to me. I’m afraid it’s a rather arrogant thing to say, but I don’t really respect the opinions of people whom I don’t know. I think it’s as simple as that. If a trusted friend were to say harsh things about me, that would upset me, but if a journalist whom I’ve never met makes statements about me I’m quite indifferent to it. I have a kind of proud stoic attitude in this; I just say a man is himself, not what strangers say of him. To thine own self be true, that’s my philosophy.

What was your feeling when you learned that a TV series was to be made of the Hitler diaries saga?

I paid no attention at all. I neither saw the film nor read the book. And I declined to write to the papers about it. I simply treated it as non-existent.

A.J. Ayer once said of you: ‘Some may think him lacking in charity’, and it is true that over the years you have joined battle with a number of enemies, often distinguished people, such as Lawrence Stone, Evelyn Waugh and Arthur Toynbee. The last of these you demolished in an article in Encounter. Some people, while admiring the scholarship of that article, detected a streak of cruelty. Is that something you are conscious of?

No. I may say it was Evelyn Waugh who declared war on me, not I on him. Lawrence Stone also asked for it. He borrowed transcripts which I had made from documents in the Records Office, and that was the basis of this half-baked article which he wrote and which I criticized. He behaved very badly. I don’t think I’ve ever severely criticized any young scholar; it’s when people give themselves great airs and are taken seriously, that’s what arouses me.

I have always heard it said that in your eagerness to win battles you do not shrink from making personal attacks on colleagues. Do you accept that charge?

I am not aware of having made personal attacks on colleagues. If I have engaged in controversy, it has always been because I thought at the time that a serious issue was at stake. I wonder what colleague I am said to have attacked personally?

Richard Cobb has spoken of your love of combat, your readiness to jump into the fray over public issues. Is this something you have ever had cause to regret?

I don’t think I love combat: it’s true I enjoyed the election for chancellorship of Oxford, but it was a genial, good-tempered affair, and there was a serious issue involved. Maurice Bowra, by bouncing a single gathering of heads of houses, had effectively disfranchised the university. This was widely felt (hence the strong support I received). Of course once the battle was on, Maurice was determined to win, and so was I. Have I ever regretted controversy? I regret them all in so far as they were extended (largely by the media) beyond their original terms. I regret having been involved with Evelyn Waugh, whose writing I admired. But he opened fire on me in 1947, both publicly (in the Tablet) and privately (in an abusive letter to me), and continued the one-sided vendetta for nine years before I finally took notice of him in the article which provoked his onslaught on my historical scholarship; to which I felt I had to reply.
The controversy whose extension I most regretted was with A.J.P. Taylor. I criticized his book The Origins of the Second World War because I thought his thesis wrong, indeed irresponsible. But then the press took over; and from then on I was always represented as the constant adversary of A.J.P. Taylor. In fact I never criticized any other work of his. I minded this, as did he. In 1979 he wrote, in the London Review of Books: ‘I often read that Trevor-Roper and I are rivals or even antagonists. On my side, and I can confidently say on Hugh’s, this is totally untrue. We have always been good friends and no cross word has ever been passed between us.’ And he wrote to me in 1983: ‘I can assure you that my feelings towards you have always been those of friendly affection.’ It was the repeated (and successful) attempts of the press to persuade the world that Taylor and I were permanent adversaries that bred in me that distaste for the media which, I’m afraid is now ingrained in me. (Of course, the affair of the Hitler diaries strengthened it.)
Another controversy was my critique of Toynbee. I admit that I was nauseated by the pretensions and sanctimonious humbug of Toynbee, and (especially) his message which was defeatist and obscurantist; disgusted too by the idiot sycophancy towards him of the American academia and media. But effectively all I did was to quote his own words, which none of his sycophants had read – they had only read Somervell’s potted one-volume abridgement of his first six volumes, whereas the real revelation of his purpose, and his vanity, was in volumes seven to ten, published later. I do not regret this episode! Toynbee’s recent biographer, William McNeill, says that Toynbee’s reputation never recovered from my essay. That pleases me!
But neither here nor in any other controversy was I drawn in merely by ‘love of combat’; there was always a real issue on which, at the time, I felt strongly: Stone’s total misrepresentation of historical documents which he pretended he had discovered (when in fact he had borrowed my transcripts and had not tried to understand them); Bowra’s contempt for the Oxford electorate and its rights; Taylor’s special pleading for Hitler; Toynbee’s hatred of reason and the Enlightenment … As I don’t think I was wrong, intellectually, in any of these encounters (or in my critique of E.H. Carr), I don’t regret them – only the personalization of them, or some of them. Perhaps it is all the fault of my style: not enough emollient, shock-absorbing pulp, sawdust, stuffing, ect…

A few months later, he reviewed our previous encounter by saying the following:

“ If you are to be interviewed by Mr Naim Attallah, do not suppose that you will get off with easy answers, for he comes well briefed and will push you hard… but on the whole the patients submit to this tactful psychoanalyst.
Indeed, they are stimulated… all these bare their souls to so perceptive and sympathetic an inquisitor”

Hugh Trevor-Roper