Monthly Archives: April 2018


Can loneliness trigger off disease? And if so what form does it take?

Sometimes it is self-imposed, especially when a wife or partner of many years is no longer there. Depression of a rare kind takes over for which no practical reason is fully justified. A new liberty of movement often turns to seclusion, whereas in normal circumstances it should create new horizons rather than social isolation.

Loneliness, it seems, raises the risk of a heart attack by more than 40 per cent; a major study published recently also suggests that social isolation can increase the chance of a stroke by 39 per cent and premature death by up to 50 per cent.

The analysis is based on the health records of 480,000 Britain’s making it the largest study of its kind. Those who already have cardio-vascular problems were far more likely to die early if they were isolated, suggesting the importance of family and friends in aiding recovery. The research team, which included British academics, said lonely people had a higher rate of chronic diseases, were smokers and showed more symptoms of depression.

Christian Hakulinen, the University of Helsinki academic who led the study, concluded that having few social contacts was a risk factor for early death, particularly among those with pre-existing cardio vascular disease. ‘The message is that if we target the conventional risk factors then we could perhaps reduce the cardio vascular disease among those who are isolated or lonely,’ said Dr Hakulinen. ‘It is also important we show that those who are socially isolated might have a worse prognosis after a heart attack or stroke.’

Scientists from University College London and Finland traced the 480,000 Britain’s aged 40-69 for 7 years. Social isolation was associated with a 43 per cent higher risk of first time heart attack when age, gender and ethnicity were factored in. Other life styles and socio-economic factors were taken into account; this explains 84 per cent of the increased risk, suggesting the lonely and isolated were most vulnerable to well-known risks. Similarly, social isolation was associated with a 39 per cent heightened chance of a first time stroke, but the other conventional risk structures accounted for 83 per cent of it. The results were similar for loneliness and risk of first time heart attack or stroke, according to the study, published in the medical journal Heart.

Those who already have cardio vascular problems were 50 per cent more likely to die if socially isolated and still a quarter more likely to die once known risks had been accounted for. More than half of all people aged 75 in Britain live alone and more than a million are believed to suffering from chronic loneliness.

Helen Stokes-Lampart, who chairs the Royal College of GPs, said; ‘Loneliness could have a devastating impact on long term health.’ She said: ‘The reality is that loneliness and social isolation, particularly for older people, can be on a par with terms of its impact on health with suffering from a chronic long term condition as this study shows, increased the likelihood of developing serious conditions such as heart attacks and strokes. On the frontline, GPs are, our teams report, seeing patients on a daily basis whose underlying problems are not primarily medical but who are feeling socially isolated or lonely. As well as being distressing for patients, loneliness can also have a real impact on General Practice and the wider NHS at a time when the whole system is facing intense resource and workload pressures.’

The College said it was working with charities, the community and voluntary groups to draw up a manifesto to present to government to tackle loneliness.

Loneliness, as well as social isolation, as I said at the outset of this piece, are tantamount to a disease whether self-imposed or due to personal circumstances and, as such, are not to be taken likely.

No Longer With Us


Douglas Black is one of Britain’s most respected medical figures. Born in Scotland in 1913-2002 he rose to become professor of medicine at Manchester University, a post he held for nearly twenty years. In the early 1970s he was chief scientist at the Department of Health and Social Security, and from 1977-80 he chaired the Research Working Group on Inequalities in Health, which resulted in the publication of the controversial Black Report. He has published extensively in medical journals and was president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1977-83.


I interviewed him in 1997. Here is what he told me then.

You were a son of the manse and grew up in Scotland. How far did these two factors influence and shape the man you became?

Being brought up in Scotland gave me the accent you can hear, and being a son of the manse gave me the twin advantages of poverty and culture. My father’s salary peaked at £300 a year, but we had plenty of books. There was no television, thank heaven, and we didn’t even have a radio, so I was able to read and think.

Did you ever think of following your father into the church?

Not really. This was not from any aversion to the church at all, but just that my father was rather keen for me to become a doctor and I had a fairly strong scientific streak. Being Scots, I had C. P. Snow’s two cultures embedded in me – my subjects in the higher school certificate were English, Latin, physics and chemistry.

I assume your family were Church of Scotland … did the Presbyterian ethic stay with you throughout your life, would you say?

Very much so. I’m firmly adherent to the so-called Protestant work ethic, but I’m very ecumenical in my outlook. I mean, anyone who’s seen patients and mixed in the world could hardly be a narrow-minded adherent of one particular sect, but I still think that religion means something. Like anyone else in this day and age I’m puzzled by the conflicts between cosmology as revealed by science and ‘truth’ as revealed in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures – or the Koran, if it comes to that.

When you qualified as a doctor, the National Health Service was not yet in place. What are your chief memories of medical practice at the time?

I qualified in 1936 and so I had twelve years before the NHS came in. Four of these years were spent in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a biochemist – not that I knew much about biochemistry, but that’s where I was put, and I went where I was told. What I remember about general practice was – to put it dramatically – you could have young people coming in with lobar pneumonia, and one in five would die. Nowadays you would expect one hundred per cent of them to walk out of hospital, but before antibiotic medicine it was a different story. Some people talk about complete conquest of infection, but that of course is nonsense. At the moment we are bedevilled by at least two infections – BSE, to give the topical one, and the terrible AIDS business. Bacteria and viruses often just jump ahead. The other striking difference between then and now was access. In the old days only rich people could buy good treatment, not always as good as they thought they were buying, but they could still buy it. Poor people could go to the voluntary hospitals as they then were, and again get pretty reasonable treatment, but the poor middle class was greatly disadvantaged because they could not afford specialist fees, and stubborn pride – certainly in Scotland – kept them from soliciting charity.

Were you a young idealist then? Did you want very much to make your mark and improve conditions?

Very much so, both medically and socially. I wanted to practise good medicine, and also to investigate the leading edge of medicine. My own research field was body fluid, because someone told me when I was a medical student that the body was sixty per cent fluid, so I thought, well, that’s for me. I’m an opportunist and a pragmatist.

Since you started out the medical world must have changed beyond all recognition. Have all the changes been improvements, would you say?

The improvements far outbalance the non-improvements. The National Health Service was a tremendous success for the first twenty-five years and shrewd people celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday not knowing what was going to happen thereafter. The incursion of market values has made very big changes. Whilst market values are tremendously important in other areas, for example in publishing, I think in medicine it’s a shade different. I’m not being idealistic or starry-eyed here, but I would say that health is so important to people that there shouldn’t be an additional financial barrier placed on top of the disability of illness.

Would you say there is a need nowadays to remind ourselves of the founding principles and values of the National Health Service? Do you think we have perhaps moved too far away from the original concept?

Yes. The NHS has been reorganized four or five times since 1973 and no service can stand up to that. It’s so disruptive. What has happened is that a somewhat artificial system of contracts has been introduced to govern all transactions which used to be quite informal. And doctors have been made to think very much more about finance. While it’s good that doctors should know what they’re costing the public, it’s bad if they have to think of money first.

Doctors traditionally maintain a professional detachment from political and social issues. In your own case, did you feel a responsibility, a duty perhaps, to go beyond the mere medical issues involved, or is it more the case that you think medicine cannot be isolated from other social issues?

My favourite answer to almost any question is both. I’ve got a built-in social interest, not a strongly political one, but one which just makes me feel for the poor. That’s part of being Scots, I think. My spontaneous interest was strongly reinforced when I worked in the Department of Health for a short period as chief scientist, and I was asked to get a working party together to study the relationship between social class and health. I found that social class is really not a particularly good indicator of poverty because there are those in social class 1 who are struggling quite hard, and conversely in social class 5 you can get people who are unskilled but who have the Midas touch. That made me take a much more structured interest in these problems.

You are perhaps best known for the Black Report into inequalities in health-care which had considerable political impact in 1980. You established beyond doubt the links between social deprivation and ill health. Were you surprised by your own findings, or had you always expected as much?

What we discovered was not particularly surprising, since we have records going back to the last century showing that poor people have shorter expectation of life and experience more ill health than people who are substantially better off. That’s of course something that anyone could see just by looking, but it was in the middle of last century that it was put on a quantitative basis by a man called Chadwick. Our particular contribution was to produce such a mass of statistics that it’s now an unassailable fact that poverty and ill health are linked. That doesn’t actually mean that poverty inevitably causes ill health, though it can do, just as ill health can lead to poverty. But we were able to argue quite strongly that there was evidence of poverty causing ill health, and the simplest evidence for that was that often the children of working-class people, manual labourers in particular, experience illness that accompanies them throughout their lives. It’s unlikely to be due to their being weaklings, forcing themselves to be poor; it’s more likely the other way round, though it’s contentious.

Is it true that Mrs Thatcher tried to suppress your report and would not accept your recommendations on the grounds that they were too expensive to implement?

The formal evidence we have is that Patrick Jenkin, then Secretary of State for Health, wrote a foreword to the report in which he admitted just that. It’s then conjecture whether Mrs Thatcher herself had anything to do with it, bearing in mind that it is unlikely that any secretary of state in her government would come out with such a potentially contentious statement without first having secured her complete backing. There may even have been dirty tricks, because our report came out in a dull cover in a pretty tatty condition. My friend Peter Townsend later brought out a shorter version in Penguin which had tremendous sales throughout the world. Some years later the Health Education Council brought out a further report called ‘The Health Divide’, and quite remarkable events attended its appearance. A press conference which had been arranged was cancelled by the Director General. There were strong denials that ministers had in any way tried to influence the abandonment of the press conference, but it seemed to me that the very strength of the denials implied they were untrue.

No one really disputes the association between poor health and poverty, but what exactly constitutes poverty in your view? Is there a minimum standard above which the term poverty no longer applies?

In this country there is of course no poverty approaching the extremes of third world poverty, which is accompanied by extreme morbidity and mortality. In Britain you get some people who are pretty destitute and others who are pretty affluent, so there is a graduation. A definition of poverty is rather elusive, partly because there’s a tendency to think that if someone has a television set, he is not experiencing extreme poverty. The official definition is actually when someone has resources of less than half the average wage.

But poverty is such a relative term. I mean, there must be a difference between what we now call poverty and what you yourself observed growing up in Scotland in the 1920s…

That’s right. As a working doctor in Scotland I saw people at the outpatient clinic in bare feet and woollen long johns which they wore because their houses were so cold. But to some extent these conditions are coming back, as you can see from the number of people sleeping in doorways.

Would you also allow that there are some people who sleep rough through choice? They’re healthy enough, but they perhaps don’t want to work, or are not disciplined enough to work.

I think that’s true. It’s difficult to know to what extent they are prey to circumstances and to what extent they lack motivation.

Did you distinguish between poverty and deprivation in your report? Which is more closely associated with poor health?

In a way deprivation is easier to define than poverty, because it’s not purely economic, it’s also cultural – lack of education and lifestyle factors which are linked with poverty, but are not of course a necessary part of it. For instance, it’s paradoxical that people in social class 5 on the whole smoke more than people in social classes 1 and 2, but it may be their only consolation, their way of escape.

Doesn’t the question of what can or should be done about inequalities in health remain an ideological one which can only be decided by politicians?

It has ideological components, that’s for sure. I mean, the degree to which people want to do something about inequality depends on their political set of mind. But it’s a blurred picture. For example, it’s not the case that all socialists have nightmares about poverty and all conservatives never give it a thought; it’s much more complex than that. May people in the Conservative Party are deeply unhappy about the relationship between poverty and health and the extent to which poverty has been recreated.

You have been critical of both Labour and Tory administrations of the health service. Although Labour were sympathetic to the principles of the NHS they were guilty of what you call ‘doctrine socialism’ with regard to private practice. Under the Tories you suggested in 1988 that the National Health Service was threatened by ‘monetarist and managerial dogma’. Where are we as regards political approaches to the NHS today?

A lot of this is about power and who makes decisions. To me there have been two shifts of power which are a direct result of reforms. One shift has been from the professionals – doctors, nurses, biochemists – to the managers. Of course the health service needs management just like any other comparable enterprise, and I’m totally in favour of strengthening management wherever that can be well done. The second very considerable shift of power has been from a service centred on hospitals to a service centred on family doctors and other people. There are strong elements of good in that because, after all, more people see their family doctor than are ever going to need to go into hospital. But where it’s not so much of a good thing is that general practitioners, instead of producing clinical arguments in favour of their patients being admitted to hospital, now have a financial stick with which to belabour the hospitals, and I’ve seen some very bad consequences of this. Sometimes hospitals literally run out of money with only a month or so to go, and conversely there is sometimes a budgetary surplus which leads to all sorts of unnecessary expenditure for its own sake. The annual budget has big problems.
How do you view the National Health Service today?

It’s not as good as it was ten years ago. I don’t think it’s as bad as the reforms might have made it, because we’ve still got the people who are reasonably dedicated to the original objectives of the health service. My major worry is that if the market forces continue and increase, then recruitment to the health service will bring in a different kind of person.

In an article in the British Medical Journal three years ago you wrote that the recurrence of monetarism over the last dozen years has revived evils that should have been relegated to history. What are the evils you were thinking of?

I can be just as rhetorical as any politician when I’m writing a rather popular article, but the sort of evils I had in mind were unequal access to health care and an increase in the disadvantages of poverty and unemployment, two of the huge changes in the past twenty years.

In the same article for the BMJ you quoted John Ruskin who said: ‘Above all a nation cannot last as a money –making mob; it cannot with impunity go despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence.’ This is quite strong stuff. Do you really believe our priorities are quite wrong, that we have lost our souls to money-making?

That’s a rhetorical statement in a rhetorical article followed by a rhetorical question. No, we haven’t lost our soul, though I think we’ve damaged it.

There appears to be a class factor in the use of tobacco and the quality of diet, and the amount of exercise taken. Isn’t the answer – in part at least – better education leading to prevention? Or is that a pie-in-the-sky approach?

It’s a very important approach, but it’s certainly not one that ranks tremendously high in efficiency. To give a very concrete example, the Royal College of Physicians has produced four reports on smoking in general, and a further one on smoking among young people. But there are more young women smoking than ever, and also more young children. So education is not the only answer.

Where do you stand on the question of medical treatment for those who refuse to help themselves – by continuing to smoke, for example?

We should treat them as well as we possibly can to the limit of our resources. I’m against any kind of moral sanction on so-called self-induced illness. One sometimes feels the temptation, but it’s one to be resisted. No we’re not there as judges, and we’re not there as padres; we’re there as doctors, and our job is to do the best we can for an individual. Of course by doing the best for the individual, we may be acting unfairly to the rest of society. But when I was in clinical practice, the basic principle was just take the case in front of you and not to worry too much about the hinterland…very reprehensible.

Do you think we are moving in the general direction of making medical treatment conditional upon responsible behaviour in the patient?

I doubt it. I think that some of my fellow puritans would want to do that, but I’m not so convinced of the veracity of my own attitudes that I would want to impose them on anyone else, either by implication or exhortation.

You regard yourself as a puritan, rather than a liberal?

I’m not against liberalism as such, but I think it has to be balanced by responsibility. There has to be a balance between liberty and libertarianism, between rights and duties. Nowadays rights have been elevated to such a huge extent, and duties have become rather neglected. For example, when you enter marriage you are not only entering a career of great enjoyment and promise, you’re also undertaking some obligations. I think the emphasis has to some extent fallen away from the obligations.

As a doctor – setting aside any moral principles you might have – are you in favour of the current relaxed attitudes towards sex…I’m talking about safe sex, of course.

I’m afraid I’m a dyed-in-the-wool puritan. I can’t justify Puritanism, but I just can’t help thinking that on balance extra-marital sex does more harm than good. Sex is a good thing, I agree with that all right, but I also think it has to be controlled to some extent.

Are there any moral absolutes in the practice of medicine?

If you think about it, there are none at all – even if you consider something like ‘Thou shalt not kill’. If I had someone with a disseminated cancer and he got a lobal pneumonia, I’d be only too happy to let him die from the pneumonia. Philosophers say that that’s no different at all from taking a syringe of potassium and pushing it into a vein and killing in that way…I can only say that it feels very different. I myself have never actually given a lethal injection, but I have some sympathy with people who do it in cases of intractable pain that they can’t otherwise relieve, even though I think it’s a very slippery slope that doctors shouldn’t go down.

When I interviewed Baroness Warnock she said that she did not believe in the sanctity of life at all costs, and that compassion was the single moral absolute. Would you agree?

No, I wouldn’t agree. I’m not a believer in absolute moral dogmas at all. When I have to formalize it, I’m a situation ethicist; in other words, I believe that the facts of a given situation are so preponderant over moral principles that one shouldn’t have absolute moral principles. In the case of the man with pneumonia who’s riddled with cancer and in unbearable pain, I’d let him go. I think that’s compassion, but I don’t make that an absolute, otherwise I wouldn’t be inclined to condemn lethal injection.

Would you agree that developments in medical science are now so rapid that they happen before our moral thinking is ready for them?

Yes, and it’s almost inevitable, because as soon as some apparently worthwhile medical discovery is made, everyone wants to apply it that week. Science runs and ethics comes plodding along behind it, and that’s probably not how it should be in an ideal world.

Since it is undoubtedly true that things which people scarcely entertained as possibilities are now actualities, and assuming this trend continues, isn’t it going to challenge the whole moral fabric of our society?

Yes, of course it is, but I think that the challenge should be directed at the scientists and doctors themselves.

What sort of ethical restraints, if any, should be placed on doctors?

Most important is the judgement of their peers in a moral climate. It’s very difficult for outside people to know what doctors are doing, let alone come to a judgement of whether it’s right or wrong. Obviously the extreme case is easy; it’s the marginal case that’s always the difficult one.

On the question earlier this year of whether or not a woman should be able to use her dead husband’s sperm, you wrote to The Times supporting her case. You said amongst other things that the woman was a victim of ‘corporate tyranny’ and that ‘people banded together are capable of follies and excesses beyond what the same people acting as individuals would perpetrate on other individuals’. This was a reference to the Human Fertilization and Embryological Authority. First of all, what in your view is the alternative to such an authority, which is there to safeguard standards and to see that the rules are implemented?

It so happened that I was on the original committee which was the Voluntary Licensing Association. My experience of the work of the VLA made me very watchful for the future of the statutory licensing authority. It seemed to me they were applying general principles too rigidly to particular situations. That’s really the germ of my idea that there might be such a thing as corporate tyranny.

Well, how can this corporate tyranny be avoided? What would you replace it with?

I’m not generally an advocate of centralization, but I think I would feel happier with a central committee on ethics which would have a general surveying function, and which as specific cases arose could call in the appropriate experts to acquaint them in depth with the medical aspects. That would be a better long-term solution than a whole lot of ad hoc committees, each of which might become too narrowly focused on its own neck of the woods.

As regards the woman in question and the issues arising from her case, do you think that women have a right to have children, come what may, provided medical science can provide them with the means?

It’s not a universal right – I wouldn’t go as far as that – but unless there are strong contradictory circumstances, I think the woman is the best judge as to whether she should have a child or not.

You obviously believed in the case of Diane Blood that the authority in their decision had caused her undue stress and hardship. But haven’t we also a duty to consider the implications for a child born in these circumstances? Can we be absolutely sure that it is morally right for the child to be brought into the world in this way – not only fatherless, but using the sperm of its dead father?

It is difficult to exclude remote possibilities, but if we come to the evidence in this particular case she said that the husband wanted a child, and it’s not an unreasonable thing for a husband to want. What is the disadvantage to a wanted child of having lost one parent? Pretty small I would say.

But I’m talking about the psychological effect of being born from the sperm of a dead father…

Well, it might worry many people, but it certainly wouldn’t worry me. Maybe I should explain why I wrote the letter. There was perhaps a reasonable case to prohibit the use in this country, but when the authority then became so determined in their opposition as to preventing her going abroad, I regarded that as a step too far in pursuing an attitude about which I feel they shouldn’t have been one hundred per cent certain. But I have learned something since that worries me, and that is that the sperm was taken by rectal stimulation. That strikes me as being distasteful. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily immoral or wrong, but it is distasteful.

But aren’t you also morally offended, if only by the very unnaturalness of it?

No. I’m a kind doctor, and it seems to me that the advantages to Mrs Blood of having a baby outweigh a hypothetical psychological disadvantage based on imagination – this business of the dead father. I mean, it is an aesthetic worry, not a moral worry. I’ve always tried to distinguish between things that are aesthetically wrong, morally wrong and illegal, because they are each different. They can be the same in so far as a lot of illegal things are also immoral and distasteful. But there are things which are distasteful which are perfectly legal.

Coming from someone with your views, there is surely a contradiction there…

Yes, I’m a contradictory chap.

Well does the time factor play any part here? Would you feel happy if the same woman wanted to use her head husband’s sperm after, say, ten years? Would there be a stage where it would be viewed as a morbid obsession with the past unlikely to benefit the resultant child?

That question could only be properly answered by meeting Mrs Blood and having a talk with her and coming to some kind of a view about her psychology.

There is much talk at present of genetic engineering and cloning. With such possibilities, do you ever get a sense that Huxley’s Brave New World is closer than we think?

It depends how close you think it is. Huxley’s Brave New World involved the universal use of drugs to make people feel better, and something like that is not too far beyond the horizon. But I don’t think there ever will be human clones because prohibition by government will prove to be sufficient.

People in general react very passionately to such issues, whereas doctors are renowned for their dispassionate approach to medical ethics. Is it mainly a question of knowledge and ignorance here, that is to say that the vast majority of lay people are deeply ignorant of the facts?

No, I think it goes far beyond ignorance. It’s the doctor’s real dilemma in a way. You have to maintain your professional detachment, otherwise you get so emotionally involved that you can’t really provide the kind of help the patient needs. The patient introduces all the emotion that is required, and if any were lacking, the relatives would introduce still more. So I think one has to keep one’s professional cool. That doesn’t mean that one mustn’t. You’re no sort of doctor if you fail to do that, and appreciate what an illness is doing to a person – that’s a necessary component of medicine, but you mustn’t get so carried away by total sympathy for patient and relatives that you don’t give them the best medical advice possible. Old-fashioned paternalism is out, even though I’m something of an old-fashioned paternalist myself. It is very difficult to be detached. Many patients have caused me great sorrow and I’ve taken actions that I have had cause to regret, but it wouldn’t really have helped the situation very much if I had, you know, gone mad.

You were president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1977-83. What were your responsibilities there, and did holding that office enable you to achieve certain goals?

I have a hedonistic approach: if you’re enjoying a job, it’s at least possible you may be doing well, whereas if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing it’s almost certain you’re doing it badly. I tremendously enjoyed my six years at the college. My main responsibility was to supervise professional standards in the interests of patients, a very worthwhile objective.

Where do you stand on the question of attitude of mind being able to influence health and illness? And are you a believer in alternative medicine?

There’s inevitably an interaction between body, mind and soul, and psychosomatic conditions are certainly rife. There’s no doubt that attitude of mind plays a big part. To answer the second part of your question, one really has to approve of anything that’s going to help patients, and undoubtedly many patients are greatly benefited by alternative medicine in all its various forms. I have a twofold difficulty with it: first, that the burden of scientific proof is often difficult to obtain, and secondly, nature itself is a very good doctor, so a lot of the good things which happen may not necessarily be due to the alternative medicine but rather the healing power of nature. There are some areas where getting an actual operation done is terribly important, acute appendix being the most straightforward example, so I would say that people should obtain an informal medical opinion before they go off to alternative medicine if they feel really ill. Apart from that, it’s not for me to condemn it.

Do you think that in our more secular society we are increasingly less able to come to terms with the fact of our own death? In the old days people felt themselves to be in God’s hands…

I’m certainly against prolonging life that’s past its purpose, as it were. I’ve had to think about this a lot in the last year or two because I’ve been chairing college committees on brain-stem death and also on the persistent vegetative state. I certainly think that there are some states of life that are worse than death. The decline of religion may have made people stick more to this terrestrial life, but like so much else, it’s a mixed non-blessing.

How do you feel about your own mortality?

Not much in the way of fear, though when I wake up in the morning I recognize that as a blessing. I once gave a lecture in which the opening paragraph recalled Joseph Addison’s essay about a crowd of people crossing a bridge which ends in a series of broken arches and is also perforated by trapdoors through which some of them fall into the flood below. Some of them clamber precariously from one arch to another, but in the end they all fall. That’s very much the sort of picture you get of life as a doctor. There’s a tendency in my profession to think that illness is something that happens to other people, but when you get to my age you have to recognize it’s going to happen to you.

If you look back over your own lifetime, do you think society is more chaotic now, in the sense that the old certainties have been eroded, and material improvements in our standard of living, for example, have perhaps led to a corresponding decline in other areas?

Yes, I do. I once wrote a paper called ‘Dead Sea Fruit’, and I think perhaps we’ve experienced some of that. So many of the things that blossom brightly with promise have turned to ashes. In the 1960s we were promised universal happiness, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way.



What appears to be an African desert is a sensational picture of the surface of Mars. You might have thought this surface is one you would expect a Bedouin tribe to wander across with their camels. But the eerie landscape is much farther from home than the Sahara. The view is actually around 60 million miles away – or an eight-month rocket trip – to the surface of the magical Mars.


The image of the red planet taken by NASA’s Mars Rover has been digitally white balanced so the rock appears as it would under our sky. Ground temperatures on Mars vary widely between day and night, fluctuating between 3c (37.4f) to -91c (-131.8f). The atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth and is 95 per cent carbon dioxide. Despite its extreme differences to Earth, the landscape of Mars is made up of familiar geographical features such as ice-caps, volcanoes, clouds and canyons.

The mountain ridge in the background is 50 miles from the Rover’s camera – which took 16 pictures shortly before northern Mar’s winter solstice, when clear skies provide a sharper view of distant scenery. Together, the photos form a panorama that takes in Yellowknife Bay where in 2013 the space mission found evidence of an ancient lake with all the basic chemical ingredients for alien microbial life.

To the south is the Clay Unit which is the mission’s next destination, after observations from orbit detected clay minerals there. The site from which the images were taken three months ago sits 1073 ft. above the landing spot on the floor of Gale Crater where the rover touched down in 2012.

Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s jet propulsion lab in California, said: ‘Even though curiosity has been steadily climbing for five years this is the first time we could look back and see the whole mission laid … the vast plains of the crater floor stretch out to the spectacular mountain range that forms the northern rim of Gale Crater.’

All I can say is what an amazing picture of Mars! The younger generation will no doubt have the opportunity to see the marvels of this planet as well as others which we are yet to be discovered. The thing I regret in old age is that my time is now limited and I envy those who will live and see within the next hundred years the enormity of The Creation and what lies beyond it. Lucky buggers…


I will be taking a break from the 11th – 25th April and not posting on my blog. I will resume on my return.


The Unbeliever

Last night we marked the launch of Ogg Boytchev The Unbeliever at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly.


Here what I said during a short address to introduce the author to an enthusiastic crowd of well- wishers.

Oggy Boytchev made a dramatic escape from behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria in January 1986. A few months later he joined the BBC World Service in London as a newsreader for the Bulgarian Section, before moving into mainstream journalism. He became John Simpson’s producer and accompanied him on dangerous undercover assignments around the world. In 2014, Quartet published Oggy’s book about his adventures with Simpson, simply entitled Simpson and I recalling their time together.

John Simpson wrote about the book: ‘I think it’s excellent – exciting in places, funny in others, and very thoughtful. I found the book delightful and a hugely valuable check to my own memories’

Today, we are assembled here to celebrate the publication of Oggy’s latest work, a highly topical thriller which I’m told is based on a true story.

It’s December 1963. It’s a decade since the death of Joseph Stalin and a year since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear war feels imminent. In Sofia’s Great Ceremonial Hall of the People, Alexander Ivanov, a low-profile UN diplomat turned spy, is on trial for treason and espionage, accused of selling secrets to the CIA. He has become an international media sensation overnight.

Facing death by firing squad, Alexander has been offered a way out: make a full confession –exposing and humiliating the Americans – and his life will be spared. The communist propaganda machine will do the rest. But what if all is not as it seems? What if Alexander has become a pawn in a power play beyond his control?

The Unbeliever is a gripping panoramic account of Cold War paranoia and intrigue spanning four decades, told through the life of one extraordinary – and real – spy

Oggy is a talented story teller who deserves your recognition. I believe that we should encourage him by asking people to buy more than one copy of his book to give to friends who I am sure would appreciate this gesture. Simpson and I is still available and certainly worth buying if you haven’t already done so. It can be ordered through Amazon or directly from Quartet, whichever you choose.

We would certainly be delighted if you were to do so. Authors and independent publishers depend on people like you who keep us dedicated to what we do. The colour of your money is always our most encouraging factor. Thank you!

No Longer With Us

I was reminded by my very alert secretary nicknamed Amazon, that on 24 July last year I wrote a piece about Melissa Sadoff’s book, Woman As Chameleon, under the heading ‘A More Innocent Time?’ Reading the piece again when sexual harassment is the topic of the moment, I think it is worth a peak for those who missed my blog at the time. It is now obvious things have changed dramatically since then. Women are taking the reins everywhere – they can’t do worse than men – and men are deservedly relegated.

Here what I wrote on this occasion  regarding her book, which Quartet published in 1987.

The recent brouhaha about the sexual antics on various TV programmes reminded me of a time, not that long ago, when a suggestion that wives sucked their husbands’ toes was ridiculed as if we had faced the end of civilization.


The book’s publication  provoked a response that was never intended (though that ancient adage about no publicity is ever that bad does apply in the publishing trade). The hilarity arose partly because of its subject and partly because of the identity of its author, who happened to be married to David Stevens, then the press baron of Express Newspapers who had been created a life peer as Lord Stevens of Ludgate. Melissa Sadoff, as she called herself, possessed an inherited family title from central Europe and was, formally speaking, Melissa, Countess Andrassy. The book she had written was Woman as Chameleon: or How To Be the Ideal Woman. It was the very antithesis of feminist doctrine, aiming to teach women ways to keep their marriage exciting by pampering their man and acceding to his every wish and whim. Melissa was flamboyant in her views and Lord Stevens gave the impression of taking his wife’s attentions in his stride. She described the treatment she gave him in rather embarrassing detail, which opened up an opportunity for the critics to have a field-day in leg-pulling. ‘Grovel’ of Private Eye immediately dubbed Melissa ‘Countess Undressy’ and claimed to have suggested the book after hearing her speak about her husband’s ‘Ugandan preferences’. He was able to quote her verbatim for his own purposes.

‘There is nothing,’ she says, ‘that can be called perverse between husband and wife so long as it relates to the husband’s need and the wife’s willingness to do it.’ I have advised her to put it all on paper with a view to publication in book form. I tell her that my friend the seedy Lebanese parfumier Mr AttullahDisgusting could well be interested, as he is currently obsessed by all aspects of the Ugandan situation.
Two weeks later ‘Grovel’ followed through with the latest development:

As I suggested, the Countess Undressy . . . is to write a book of Ugandan hints, which will shortly be published by the swarthy Lebanese sex-fiend Naim Attullah-Disgusting. The ‘Countess’ will not mince words when she describes how she sees the duties of a wife. ‘Always kiss your husband’s body, starting from his toes,’ she writes. ‘After kissing his toes and sucking them, proceed to kiss every inch of his legs . . . ‘She should then perform the oral act. Many women feel an aversion towards this form of sex . . . Women who feel this way need to be asked what they would prefer – to have their husband go to a prostitute for such a service?’ (What’s the oral act? © Norman Fowler ’87) (That’s enough filth. Ed.)

The launch for Woman as Chameleon was held on 10 February, with ‘Londoner’s Diary’ of the Evening Standard citing the toe-kissing routine before asking ‘a pale, nervous and uncomfortable’ David Stevens, ‘Well, does she always?’ He had to confess that he hadn’t yet read the book, and didn’t intend to do so till he’d sifted through the reviews. ‘Otherwise I might be embarrassed.’

The nearest the party came to being risqué was when Jubby Ingrams’s (the daughter of Richard Ingrams, and who worked at Quartet) shoe was removed from her foot by an admirer with a view to kissing her from the toes upwards. Ms Sadoff rushed over to intervene. ‘No,’ she cried with a Transylvanian lilt. ‘It must be the other way round.’

Henry Porter in the Sunday Times ‘Notebook’ judged David Stevens to be ‘rather more reticent about his home life’ than was his wife.

I would estimate that this book . . . is going to cause considerable embarrassment to Mr Stevens . . . None the less, he has taken steps to purchase the serial rights if only to keep it out of the hands of the Daily Mail group, which naturally was keen to enhance his discomfort by publishing extracts like this: ‘Become your husband’s own prostitute . . . if your husband is in his study, workroom or garage in the wintertime put on a sexy slip, wrap yourself in a coat, slip on suspenders, black stockings and surprise him wherever he may be.’

Unfortunately the fun and games of the press diverted attention from the rest of the book, which threw many a light on relationships, friendships, motherhood and divorce, with sound philosophical reflections. Melissa was of Hungarian origin, a talented concert pianist and an accomplished hostess. She was perhaps a shade over the top in her enthusiasm, but being an eternal optimist her heart was in the right place. In retrospect, I believe she deserved more praise for the book than she ever received. Throughout the merciless lampooning from Private Eye and the barrage of snide sarcasm aimed by the rest of the press against the book, which inevitably earned the displeasure of the feminist lobby, she remained in control and outwardly unaffected by it all.

Her husband, despite the newspapers’ determination to embarrass him, was extremely supportive. He did not seem to be in any way phased by the teasing of friends over the rumpus caused by some of the book’s intimate passages. Sadly, only two years later, Melissa died when she got up in the middle of the night to eat a peach and choked on the stone. I was in Los Angeles at the time and was woken to hear the dreadful news. It left me feeling very emotional. I had grown to like Melissa immensely. Her colourful personality and boundless zest for life were her enduring strengths and ensured she could not be easily forgotten.

Melissa was always entertaining, with something of interest to say. I interviewed her in 1987 two years before she died  and here is the substance of what she told me.



Melissa Sadoff: My grandmother and mother probably showed me what the feminine woman is. They delighted in being lovely women and emphasized making a man’s life very pleasant and charming.
I thought carefully about what I wanted even as a very young girl, and would simply ask for things and get them. Our family was a male-dominated family, but I had an equal voice. I was single-minded and determined, very. I always knew I was going to be a writer, and started reading when I was five. I was writing little pieces of prose when I was nine or ten, and always wrote my own cards at Christmas and birthdays, and particularly for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and when I was thirteen I had already started writing philosophical essays. I always wanted to be famous, not for the sake of being famous, but for the sake of leaving something to humanity after I died. If I had been a man, I probably would have been some kind of crazy general ore war leader, even though war is not in my heart at all. But I think I would have been quite a determined man.


Melissa Sadoff: The more I’ve read history, the more I’ve read literature, the more I’ve felt that a determined woman, in all cultures, through all history, could achieve what she wanted. Even in Roman history, you had women leaders, women queens. There were quite well-known priestesses in Greek society. We know that Egypt had queens, Cleopatra and Nefertiti. It’s not just the social position they were born in, but a woman who was determined could always achieve what she wanted – for example, Joan of Arc. Which woman, even today, would lead an army dressed as a man, and there she was, she did it, she was a friend of kings. So I never felt that a woman as an individual was restricted, although I would say the that the rules, regulations and laws in certain cultures didn’t allow the mass of women their freedom.
In some societies, maybe many societies, women are still discriminated against en masse, but that is changing. It has been changing for a long while. It is a slow evolution, but it is getting up speed and it’s getting more and more straightened out. I personally have not suffered discrimination, but not because I had any advantages. When I was about five years old, we were thrown out of one home, in Hungary. When I was seven years old, we were thrown out of Yugoslavia. We did not have a chance to take even the little dolls – at that time probably the most important thing to me. When you couldn’t take sentimental possessions, never mind material possessions, that should create a tremendous complex in a human being. When you are seven years old and you see a dead body hanging off a tree, with all the insides out, that is not an advantage, that should create a tremendous disadvantage. When I realized at about thirteen or fourteen that, due to different political philosophies, people mistreat each other very badly, I was shaken into reality from my romantic, idealistic world. It should have left me cynical, it should have left me bitter, and quite insecure. I had the same ability or inability to cope with my problems as all of us do. The difference is that many of us do not think about our lives. We do not realize how long we live, we don’t ask ourselves what we want to achieve in that life, we don’t ask ourselves how we can cope with our own problems without going to psychiatrists, without asking for all sorts of help, without becoming alcoholics or drug addicts. We don’t ask ourselves whether we can solve our own problems. And very often we can.
I still say that, as long as a woman is very feminine and knows what she wants, and tells it honestly, she is going to get everything she wants, whether it is a career or children or whatever.
Women may have problems with their cycles, things like that, but even though there are times and reasons and physical causes for a woman to react that way, it annoys me when you hear women saying, oh dear, I can’t get up in the morning too early, and if I do I have to have a cup of coffee immediately, and my cigarette, and I can’t talk to anybody before noon. I could say the same thing. But I wouldn’t, it’s a waste of time. I would say that is a negative approach. If I have to get up very early in the morning, I do. I am going to be pleasant, and I’m going to speak to people before noon. Why not? We are sophisticated human beings. We are no longer animals, to react in such natural ways and say we cannot cope with this, that or the other. We have a brain in our head and we should use it.


Melissa Sadoff: We’re prompted to believe that, to have exciting sex, you have to make love all the time. First of all, much as we would want it, or our imagination would want it, you can’t do it physically, simply because there are other things to do. By the time any man comes home at night, he is half-exhausted if not completely exhausted, he is not in a very good mood to perform. And if a woman has an ordinary or average life, she is not ready to hop into bed either. So if a woman is clever and creates romantic situations, such as a weekend away or visiting her husband in the office, if she can seduce her husband in different circumstances and situations, she can keep that going and really kindle his imagination.
Most men do not equate sex with love. Women do. But even a man can be a victim in a strong, clever woman’s hands. Let us say it starts with a flirtation, then leads to an affair, then the woman, the other woman thinks, this could really become something of a much more permanent nature and she likes the whole idea. She can trap him without difficulty. I don’t care who the man is, he will think this is the greatest love he ever had in his life. So it is possible for a clever woman to change men’s minds and therefore, what was in the beginning just a flirtation, an affair, can become a love.
It is not the speed and quantity of sex that matters, it is the quality. Making love every ten days is much better than making love every day and not knowing what this is all about.


Melissa Sadoff: Rearing a child is probably the most important for a woman, but I would rather give that love to a man. I chose my vocation. I would be much more interested in making a man happy than a little child. Having said that, I have had happiness in children as well, but I did it because I love them, not because I really chose them.


Melissa Sadoff: I prefer men if the women are not educated. I don’t mean educated in the sense of university degrees, but educated in life. I have met many wise old women who were not educated at university, but they were utterly, utterly interesting to talk to. They had been through the university of life, they were wise, they were very intelligent – maybe not academic, but intelligent – and I like interesting women. If a woman speaks to me only about washing machines and the price of butter and where the children go to school, I don’t enjoy that type of woman at all.
I love a man who, no matter how much he loves to work, knows the seductive side of life and can combine the pleasures of life with work. I also like a man who treats a woman like a woman.


Melissa Sadoff: I think men and women are completely different, not just visually, not just biologically, but our brain is different. We have the same type of nerve centre and so forth, but our reflexes, our emotions will be different. If a man is confronted by a prowler, his natural instinct would be to stand up and fight. A woman’s natural instinct would be more or less to run away and scream. It is just a natural reaction. We’re not sophisticated enough yet to say we have a brain in our head and we are going to use it. We allow the brain to use us and tell us what to do.
A man needs several women, many women, not only for a short span of time, but throughout his lifetime. I come back again to how different we are, mentally and biologically. Women need a romance and need one man, maybe. They would probably never change that one man if there is no good reason to do so. A man, no matter how loyal and how much he loves his wife, in my opinion – particularly an intelligent man who is well travelled, who knows life such as life is, full of exciting projects and exciting adventures – that man would need a different woman every year, every six months, who is to say, maybe every month. I cannot find anything immoral or amoral about it.
Our sexual needs are different, totally. A man needs to be stimulated all the time, so does the woman. However, unless she is a nymphomaniac, she would be very happy to be stimulated only by one man. As long as she is in love with him, and she can be in love with him for ever and ever, as long as she has that romantic image of the man, she will be faithful to him as long as she lives. However, no matter what she does, unless she really is superb, she is not enough, she is going to start ageing eventually. It is so silly of us women to think that a man doesn’t enjoy beauty, doesn’t enjoy excitement, doesn’t enjoy youth. There are all sorts of women. Some are much sexier than others. If a man is a real man, he will fall under the charms of this other woman. We would have to be all-round women, or what I call women for all seasons, to please a man forever, and even that would be very difficult.



The dating game is being unmasked as sex bridges the gap in its inception between men and women. Previously the sexes would see things rather differently, despite the fact that women are more likely to regret sleeping with someone too soon, while men regret not doing so in general. But it transpires that women can be as content as men when it comes to no strings sex, a study suggests, as long as they make the first move and the person they are sleeping with is good in bed.


A woman’s misgivings fade somewhat if the night of passion is their idea, according to researchers. They wake up with regrets the morning after if the sex was bad – but not so much if they enjoyed it. A study of almost 800 people to determine why women regret casual sex more than men, found feeling pressurised into it a key reason. Women feel much less regret if they initiate the encounter while men care less about who makes the first move.

Lead author Dr Leif Edwards Ottensen Kennair, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said women’s greater reluctance to have no strings sex may be due to their human evolutionary past. He said: ‘Women in the past had a lot more to lose from having sex with a non-committed partner as if they got pregnant the man could walk away at no cost to anything but his reputation while she could be left to bring up the child. We know today that women are more worried than men about pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and their reputation.’

Women may also regret a one-night stand more because they are less likely to climax, according to the research. Put simply, men tend to have a better time during sex which cancels out some of the more unpleasant feelings such as shame and guilt.

The psychologists interviewed 750 people about their last no strings sexual encounter. Around half of women said they regretted it – compared with about a third of men. To find out why, they asked participants how much they enjoyed the sex, whether they had an orgasm, and how much they worried, felt immoral or felt pressure.

The study group were also to rate their agreement to the statement ‘I was the one to take the initiative.’ The results showed men and women regretted having sex if the sex was bad, the other person sexually incompetent or they experience worry or disgust. Each factor is more important for women than for men. Women felt less regretful if they made the first move but this had no impact on whether men felt regret or not.

Study co-author Professor David Buss, from the University of Texas, said: ‘Women who initiate sex are likely to have at least two distinguishing qualities. First, they are likely to have a healthy sexual psychology being maximally comfortable with their own sexuality; second, women who initiate have maximum choice of who they have sex with.’
The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, found disgust was the biggest cause of regret over a one night stand. This could be disgust over the type of sex, someone’s hygiene or the act of having sex outside a relationship. The authors conclude: ‘Women’s greater worry and lower levels of sexual gratification partially explain why women regret casual sex.’

I don’t believe it has ever been easy to define sex and its consequences. However, what is beyond doubt is that men in general can attain orgasm easier than women whatever the circumstances. Women take more time to reach a climax, as opposed to men to whom the act is more mechanical and as such, less complicated.

Which Yet Survive

Last year we published a book by John Mills. A chemist by early inclination and training, Mills’s passion for culture, music and art found expression as he immersed himself in a Soho artistic community of the 1950s; a community boasting such notorieties as  Francis Bacon and Henrietta Moraes, as well as emerging artists from the Slade School including Victor Willing and Paula Rego. Mills chanced upon a perfect symbiosis of his twin passions, science and the arts, becoming a prominent figure and pioneer at the National Gallery in the Scientific Department and a connoisseur of antique carpets. A lifelong obsession with travel began in earnest at 18 when, drafted into National Service as a wireless mechanic, Mills witnessed the final throes of the British Empire in Singapore, Burma and Ceylon; he has lived and worked in Mexico and traversed vast swathes of the world map, taking in the West Coast hippie revolution and Soviet Russia en route.

The book under the title Which Yet Survive is an impression of friends, family and encounters.


The Fortnightly Review now carries a well-deserved review by John McEwen, who sheds light on the various aspects of this important publication for the benefit of those who missed a copy of the book at the time. It’s never too late to acquire a copy from Quartet, which I am sure you will enjoy reading. The following is the full review which is encouraging and worth your attention:

JOHN MILLS has no Wikipedia or Who’s Who entry, which seems astonishing. As a chemist (b. 1928) he was a reforming influence on the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, which he joined in 1951 and where he worked for most of the next half century, becoming its director from 1984-1990.

Paint is a mixture of mostly inorganic mineral pigments liquefied and bound by the addition of an organic medium, in western painting typically egg or drying oil. Colour identifies pigment; medium, Mills’s speciality, is far more complex: a description of the paintings of Stubbs shows just how complex. His book The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, published in 1987, has long passed the Cyril Connolly in-print-for-a-decade ‘classic’ test. For many years Mills edited the IIC (International Institute for Conservation) journal Studies in Conservation. He is also a world authority on carpets, which arose from his interest in those depicted in paintings. Many will remember his 1983 exhibition Carpets in Paintings at the National Gallery. Here too his scholarship is preserved in print, beginning with Carpets in Pictures (1975).

He carries his expertise lightly. As he says of his pioneering research in steroid chemistry, which took him to Mexico in the late 1950s: ‘I will summarise my work now so as to get on to more readable matters.’ Accordingly most of the memoir is devoted to his friends, many of them in the arts, especially the visual arts; and, often inseparably, his global travels, professional and private, which began when he was posted to the Far East as a qualified wireless mechanic during National Service, and show no sign of abating.

The tone is elegiac – ‘always my favourite in poetry and prose’ – and readers over seventy should be warned that, thanks to the precision of the author’s memory and his stoical accounts of old age, there is much here that may cause tears of recognition. Attention to detail and dry humour will appeal to all ages. The detail has considerable sociological value as a meticulous account of surely the most transformative years in human history, by a witness with the rare knowledge of both science and art. For that reason it is equally recommendable to the young.

Just how much the world has changed is illustrated by his childhood memory of charcoal burners in the woods round Guildford, where he was born and raised. Exceptionally bright, Mills won a place at grammar school at nine. There he made lifelong friends, whose fortunes he follows in later chapters. Several achieved public distinction, including his best friend, the painter Victor Willing. It was through Willing, who went to the Slade, that Mills first planted one foot firmly in the art world. His widow, Paula Rego, their children and friends, among them writer and publisher Tony Rudolf, a vital supporter of this book, have for many years constituted his inner circle. Final and coincidental fruition finds him in old age a Ventnor neighbour of Victor and Paula’s daughter, the writer Cas Willing and her husband the sculptor Ron Mueck.

One way he contrasts past with present is by including prices. As he reminds us, British austerity was worse after than during the war, so every penny counted; but there was compensation in cheap foreign travel. In 1949/50 he and Willing rented a top floor flat in a Chepstow Villas mansion for about £4 per week; a Covent Garden gallery ticket cost 2/6 (12.5p; 30p for Wagner); and in Spain: 35 pesetas (35p) covered full board and lodging; a £2 booklet of train vouchers guaranteed 3,000 kilometres of travel. He was astonished to find Paris ‘a sort of Babylon… there appeared to be no shortage of anything’.

The art panjandrum and collector David Sylvester called him ‘a fifties man’. For Mills, the fifties meant the ‘wonderful’ Festival of Britain and later the arrival of Expresso coffee bars. They reverse its reputation as a dreary post-war interlude. Parties were the binding social medium and he quotes some contemporary entries from his journal, which include the presence of Bacon, Freud and other now legendary figures.

The fifties also marked his entry into professional life. In this he relied on ‘that most poignant of Shakespeare’s pensées’:

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.’

He adds a corollary: ‘start as you want to go on for almost certainly you will go on as you start…But chance – even luck – can also determine the course of one’s life.’ So it proved. In search of a job he returned one summer vacation to his deserted alma mater, Imperial College, and found an insignificant hand-written message on the notice-board. It offered interviews for two Nuffield Foundation scholarships to carry out research at the National Gallery. One was for a physicist to study the effects of solvents on paint and varnish. Nothing could better have combined his principal interests, science and art. He was accepted. The course of his life was set.

Perhaps what most marks him as a fifties man is his reason for taking early retirement at 62. ‘I started to feel rather unhappy at the change in managerial style that was gradually taking over the Gallery. For some reason an administrator had been brought in – I think from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – to bring us more into line with ministerial ways rather than continue in the relaxed style which had served us so well.’ It meant a ‘greater emphasis on hierarchy’ and ‘staff assessments’. In the six-strong Scientific Department, where they all ‘felt equal and equally committed’ he found this market diktat ‘very embarrassing and even offensive’. His book is a tribute to the days when work was based on friendship and vocation and did not inhibit style or eccentricity. Mills records memorably delicious meals, cites agreeable long restaurants-cum-meeting places, and writes lovingly of his 1933 350cc four-stroke Levis motorbike and 1957 Chrysler New Yorker convertible, which he even shipped back to England.

He describes his parents as kind; and kindness is the mark of his own nature, never more so than when for many years he voluntarily met the onerous demands of the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda, when absent in the USA. It is epitomised by the magnificent trans-USA journey with which he rewarded his parents in their old age, a dream fulfilled which afforded them many traveller’s tales back in Guildford.

His friendship with David Sylvester, ‘the greatest achiever among my male friends’, offers special humour and poignancy as it reveals an often exasperating figure of fun. Mills and the painter Keith Sutton, who has yet to receive his posthumous due, first inspired Sylvester’s influential interest in carpets. Sylvester decided to collect ‘extremely worn and faded pieces if they were of an important type’. Mills and Sutton referred to them as ‘David’s ghosts’ and such carpets were soon referred to in the rug trade as in ‘David Sylvester condition’. When Sylvester found a new interest in gardening, his obsession with re-arrangement meant nothing grew; a trait which also reduced his collaborators to tears of frustration when installing exhibitions. Dimension particularly dictated the positioning of carpets, yet ‘David would insist on these heavy objects being rotated through all possible orientations…until they finally ended up in the obvious position’.

Kindness makes for professional and personal discretion but he can deliver a withering aside. He once heard Mary John sum up the bohemian life of girls at the Slade with the telling description:

‘Our beds were like old dog baskets.
plus ca changeBut at least they didn’t put them on exhibition as works of art.’

And his readers are unlikely to visit Wellington in New Zealand – or Swindon and Wigan in England: ‘Wellington was the pits, it was like spending the day in Swindon or Wigan or some such place. How could they have chosen it for their capital.’ The one redeeming feature was Captain Cook’s ‘stunningly beautiful’ feather coat in the National Art Gallery.

Among other recommendations worth noting are Don Carlos, favourite Verdi opera; the cathedrals of Modena and St Bertrand de Comminges; the sixteenth-century Persian ‘garden carpet’, Jaipur Museum; Istanbul (but not in winter); George Gissing, one of his chief literary heroes; and the discovery that with age you begin to ‘understand’ the Baroque: note the cathedral at Piazza Armerina, Sicily, and the chapel of San Cataldo, Cosenza, Calabria.

The seeds of cypress trees, arising from his research of natural resins in California in the 1950s and presented by him to Kew, eventually grew to become a grove which he visited with pleasure in later years. Now we have this richly informative and moving testimony to a consummately civilised life, which bridges the cultural divide and spans the globe and most of the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

No Longer With Us


Ned Sherrin CBE – producer, performer, writer and director – was born in Somerset in 1931-2007. He qualified as a barrister before going into television where he made his name on satirical programmes such as That Was The Week That Was and Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life. He has produced several films, including The Virgin Soldiers, and her presents the weekly radio programme Loose Ends. He has directed many plays, including Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, and among his publications are Loose Neds and Theatrical Anecdotes.


I interviewed him in 1997. Here is what he told me then.

You wrote in your book Loose Neds that you had read about twenty in-depth interviews with Ned Sherrin and they were all more or less identical. Why do you think that is? Is it perhaps because you yourself decide which areas are to be covered, or are the interviewers just no bloody good?

The latter certainly. What they do is get the cuttings out and read everybody else’s interview and then they ask the same questions. Biographical stuff is usually cast in the same mould and practically everybody’s heard it every time.

People are often suspicious of professional funny men, believing that behind all the jokiness and wit there lurks a sad unhappy figure. Is there any truth in that in your own case?

No. Anyway, I’m not a natural funny man. Most of my jokes depend on people writing them for me. Your question reminds me of a wonderful remark at Willy Rushton’s funeral. Auberon Waugh said that he didn’t think he’d make jokes as he’d been asked to do, because death was a serious business. ‘On the other hand,’ he added, ‘I suppose if Willie was here this morning we’d both be having a good laugh at the death of Sir Laurens van der Post.’ [Laughter] That seemed to sum up the essence of the Private Eye joke – very funny, very topical, very cruel.

You talk about the ‘differences’ you felt as a child growing up on your father’s farm, not having the instinct of a country boy and planning your escape route. Have you ever wondered why you felt different?

No. I liked the country, but mooning around after cows wasn’t my idea of fun. The glamour and glitter of the bright lights appealed to me more. I remember as a small child there was a cocktail party held in the big house in the village. My parents hated parties so my brother and I went alone, and I was absolutely fascinated. It was there I heard my first piece of theatre gossip, I heard someone say, ‘Did you realize that Ivor Novello has inherited the mantle of Owen Nares?’ This seemed to me to be the most priceless bit of information but there was nobody in the village I could share it with. I was happy to get away.

By cutting yourself off from your roots you inevitably created a barrier between you and your family. Is that something you have been able to live with easily?

I get on particularly well with my brother even though we’re wildly different. It was very convenient that he wanted to farm and could take over from our father. I didn’t want the farm so I didn’t have to be there.

Did you feel you were a disappointment to your father?

I don’t think so. He was a bit disappointed with That Was The Week That Was. He loved it when I was doing nice safe programmes like Tonight with that nice Cliff Michelmore, and a nice quiz programme with that nice Franklin Engelmann, but he was a bit worried about having to explain away TW3.

But did you get on?

Yes. My only criticism of my father – I’ve probably inherited it – is that if he had one joke he would flog it to death and this could be a bit tiresome. I don’t think he understood why I wanted to go away but since I never had to ask him for any more money after that he was probably quite relieved.

In your autobiography you tell the story of how you were unable to kiss your dying father. You tell it matter-of-factly without sentiment, but I thought it was the nearest you came to having a serious regret…

Yes…but in fact we invariably kissed on leaving. It was simply that on the occasion in question somebody else arrived just at that moment, and so it had to wait until after he’d died.

Back in the 1960s when you pioneered That Was The Week That Was did you and those you worked with have the feeling that you would change the world?

No, we had the feeling that we’d all enjoy ourselves on a Saturday night. TW3 had grown out of the news documentary aspect of the old Tonight programme and that great upswing of activity from Private Eye, the Beyond the Fringe team, and all the change that came about with the angry young men. What we were doing was a distillation of a movement which had already been started. The difference was that we were peddling it to a far bigger audience – that was why it had the impact.

If there was no such lofty notion as changing the world, wasn’t there something terribly trivializing and therefore trivial about what you were doing, as if nothing mattered very much?

No. I think we set out to do a more adult sort of entertainment than was generally available at the time. For true satire you do probably need to have an almost irrational passion, it needs to be wild and damaging. But we were never really trying to peddle perfect satire, we were doing a sort of communication with the audience in informal terms late on a Saturday night. The only time I got really worked up about anything was when Macmillan was succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home instead of Butler. I thought it would have been much more interesting to have Butler and I commissioned a very strong piece which apparently upset Sir Alec a great deal. But in the long run I think rational criticism is probably better than burning passion.

Do you think there was a kind of shift in society at the beginning of the 1960s which made a new kind of satire and irreverence possible?

Yes. Attitudes took a little time to change after the war, but then there was Look Back in Anger in 1956 which altered everything. Another terribly important time was when rock and roll came in, and the whole forelock-touching philosophy seemed to go out of the window.

Do you think the success of the show had something to do with the final loss of the empire and the old English certainties falling by the wayside?

Yes, we were all getting into a more questioning mood at that time. In the old days a BBC reporter confronting a minister at the airport would say, ‘Oh, excuse me, sir, have you any interesting message to tell us?’ But when the Robin Days and the Ludovic Kennedys and the Ian Trethowans of the early days of ITN got to airports they asked different questions. Once the attitude started to change it became a groundswell.

The kind of interviewing at that time was certainly different from today…

Yes, but I sometimes think it goes too far today. I’m often quite in sympathy with politicians who feel they’re getting a rough time on Today. Sometimes the interviewing is extremely good, but at other times it really does get terribly irritating when the interviewer jumps in before the person’s uttered two sentences.

What did you think of the old-style John Freeman kind of interview?

I thought his interviews were fascinating. People seemed to have more patience to listen then but now we’re in the era of the sound bite. Television producers feel that an audience cannot sustain interest for more than a minute or two. That seems to me to be very damaging. The very funny interviews that John Fortune and John Bird do so exquisitely on the Rory Bremner Show seem to hark back to a golden age.

Bernard Levin said that TW3 was about ‘filth, sedition and blasphemy’. Did Levin just fail to get the joke, or what?

I’m sure he was being funny. That was Bernard’s great rallying cry. But in fact he was an integral part of the programme and chiefly responsible for a lot of the filth, seduction and blasphemy.

In a sense you were the odd one out in TW3 – you weren’t a bearded leftie in sandals but more a Tory of the old school, as Willy Rushton called you. Did you ever feel like the odd one out?

No, I felt rather paternal towards them in fact. I was roughly ten years older than Frost and six years older than Willy Rushton, and that made a difference.

When Kennedy died you went ahead with TW3 the following evening. Malcolm Muggeridge said afterwards, ‘They are probably all thoroughly ashamed of it.’ Were you? Or was anyone in fact ashamed?

No, I think we had no alternative. Malcolm felt that the brief of the programme was to mock everything, but in fact the brief off the programme was to reflect our feelings on behalf of the nation at the end of each week. It was like a mini New Year’s Eve every Saturday night. The whole nation, the whole world indeed, was shattered by the Kennedy business; all we could do was reflect that.

Philip Larkin, in his poem Churchgoing, describes how people hide behind jokes and irony when in fact there is an urge to be serious, of which they are half ashamed. Have you ever been conscious of anything like that?

Yes. I’ve just published a novel and I found the authorial voice which pontificates on the fates and predicaments of the characters a bit embarrassing. One felt perhaps one was revealing a naivety in oneself which one would prefer people not to be aware of.

Do you feel that your public persona is different from your private one?

No, I think it’s exactly the same. I would be surprised if people who know me well would say there’s any difference at all.

When I read through your autobiography each page seems to be packed with parties and social events, an endless stream of gossip and amusing observations. But I didn’t get the sense of there being any serious philosophy in your life – principles or beliefs you hold dear. Do you have any?

I don’t think I do. I’m a walking definition of a wet Church of England conservatism, which some people hold to be no religion at all. I’m probably just too self-satisfied. I’ve enjoyed life far too much to search for any more serious purpose.

Where do you stand on religion, for example?

Well, it’s seven minutes’ walk to Chelsea Old Church and I do that about once a month. That’s where I stand on religion.

Is that out of habit or conviction?

Out of habit. Also out of enjoyment, which is another reason for doing it. I like the idea of going to communion once a month. On the whole I feel comforted by it and I like to put in a few requests each month. I don’t waste my time on trying to formulate a concept of God. I have observed far brighter people than me trying to do just that and failing.

But do you find as you get older you tend to be more religious?

Again, I haven’t noticed a great change in my attitude. God may have done, but I haven’t.

You have often said that you have never had any problems with being gay. To what do you attribute the lack of complications?

I don’t know. I didn’t ever discuss it with my parents or with any member of my family. I would have been entirely outside their imagination and comprehension. One was a little worried during the early 1950s and 1960s because one didn’t want to be arrested and sent to prison – for any reason let alone for one’s sexual preferences. But apart from that it has never bothered me.

Is it perhaps easier to be gay when you move in theatrical and artistic circles, as you do?

I’m sure that’s true. If I’d been growing up on the farm, then I’m sure it would have been very difficult and embarrassing. That may have been one of the contributory factors to my wanting to leave.

Have you ever encountered serious prejudice?

Only on one occasion and that was recently. I had been booked to speak to a firm of stockbrokers in January and at the last minute they rang up and said that perhaps I wasn’t the sort of person they would like to have speak to them.

It’s thirty years since Viscount Montgomery made his famous remark about homosexuality: ‘This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are the British, thank God.’ Although we have undoubtedly come a long way since then, do you perhaps think the underlying British attitude remains the same?

Montgomery is an interesting one because he was in fact fascinated by young men always. I imagine he didn’t realize that there was a sort of subliminal homoerotic feeling there. It takes an awful long time for things to change but I would have thought that prejudice was moving backwards, albeit very slowly. Homosexuality is a very difficult thing for people to imagine, and perhaps even more difficult if they’re unconsciously suppressing some impulse in themselves and are rather frightened of it.

In your latest book, Sherrin’s Year, you say that you have never been reluctant to engage a male prostitute, and you describe how you respond to adverts in the Gay Times and so on. Have you never longed for a more sustained relationship?

I’ve attempted two more sustained relationships, and in both cases they were happy, but they ended when the other person went off. Now at the age of sixty-five it is perhaps too late to be looking for a new sustained relationship, and the idea of being irresistibly attractive to somebody at sixty-five would be a triumph of hope over experience.

Most people still think there is something a bit sad and desperate about going to a prostitute…is that a completely mistaken view, would you say?

Some prostitutes have become my best friends – an interesting variation on the idea that some of my best friends are prostitutes. I’ve become friends with many men whom I’ve met in that way, some of whom have stopped being prostitutes, some of whom have carried on doing it.

You say that prostitution is a better idea than exploiting a young actor who might be hoping for work. What did you mean by that remark exactly, and why does there have to be exploitation at all in a relationship entered into freely?

It’s the old story of the casting couch. There was a whole wave of protests in the theatre in the 1940s because of the theatrical managements which was particularly successful was reckoned to be run by homosexuals, and young actors were getting jobs for the wrong reasons. That sort of thing is tiresome.

You are chairman of a consortium which has proposed a twenty-four-hour gay radio station for the UK. How do you rate the chances of that happening?

It’s difficult to know but I think it would be very valuable. It would be a music-based station and everybody knows that the best modern music is played in gay clubs. Indeed heterosexuals often go to gay clubs simply because of the music. It’s also an opportunity for communicating with gays who are not lucky enough to be in the London mainstream and may be feeling left out in the provinces with no one to talk to or understand their problems.

How politically involved are you in the gay movement?

Hardly at all apart from charity work. The AIDS thing has been such a threat that I do as much as I can for Crusaid and the Terence Higgins Trust, but I’m not good at marching.

Have you yourself ever had cause to worry about AIDS?

Yes. My sex life is really restricted now, so there’s much less chance of getting it and there’s all sorts of precautions one can take if one was going to the ultimate extreme. I don’t actually do that any more, but certainly I consider myself lucky not to have got it. I stopped counting after more than fifty of my friends had died, and so in those terms it’s perhaps remarkable that one hasn’t got it. Certainly several of my ex- – I hate the word partners – lovers have died of AIDS.

Isn’t it traumatic when one of your friends dies of AIDS?

Yes, but fifty traumas is a lot, so you become a bit inured to it. It doesn’t stop the sadness of course.

You refer a couple of times in your diary to Peter Tatchell’s Outrage campaign to expose bishops and other prominent figures, but it’s not quite clear whether you approve of this action…

I desperately disapprove of it. I always remember Runcie’s address from the pulpit in Southwark Cathedral at Mervyn Stockwood’s memorial service. Mervyn had been one of the people on Tatchell’s list for outing bishops. The Bishop of Bath and Wells into whose diocese Mervyn had retired thought he had better ring up Mervyn and warn him, and Mervyn to his great credit told the bishop that if the press got on to him to be sure and tell them he had lots of women as well. [Laughter] In fact the evidence suggested that Mervyn, though naturally homosexual, was celibate, but he wasn’t going to be frightened by Peter Tatchell.

Do you think you can be gay and still be the messenger of God?

Oh certainly. I don’t see any reason why not.

The Old Testament would suggest otherwise…think of Sodom and Gomorrah…

Yes, but there were all sorts of primitive community restrictions then. I mean, it wasn’t a good idea to eat pork or seafood in the desert either. There’s also the fact that John was the disciple that Jesus loved, so there’s the other side of the question.

Are you sensitive to criticism?

I prefer good notices to bad.

Caryl Brahms, your late writing partner, described you as a narcissist looking into a lake and saying, ‘I’m perfect.’ Do you plead guilty?

Yes – but I don’t think it’s the whole man. Caryl was very acute but she was also frustrated if she didn’t get her own way, and we had lots of artistic quarrels during the nearly thirty years we worked together.

In some ways you strike me as being an English version of Gore Vidal…sharp, acerbic, also gay. Would you be flattered or dismayed by the comparison?

Oh, I’d be flattered, but Gore would be dismayed. He’s not speaking to me at the moment, but that’s my regret and his loss. Gore is a volcano of natural wit and a writer of the utmost brilliance. It’s like comparing the genius and the journeyman.


Donald Trump is getting worse as time goes by. He seems to lose his marbles on a regular basis. He loves controversy, thrives on it and yet to the astonishment of the world at large, his power, instead of diminishing, appears to gain momentum as the majority of Americans unwittingly approve of his rhetoric and his wayward policies.


Last month he declared a trade war on China by imposing import tariffs of up to 42 billion pounds on 1,300 products. Among the targets were technology firms. Mr Trump claims they have gained an unfair advantage over US rivals. However, imports of steel from the EU were excluded from the list at least for the time being, allaying fears that UK producers would be hit. The aggressive gesture comes after Mr Trump expressed anger at the fact US companies import £265 billion more goods from China than they export.

Everett Eissenstat, of the US National Economic Council, said many of the imports were being made in China through the unfair acquisition and forced technology transfer from US companies. China warned that the measures announced amounted to a declaration of a ‘trade war’ and threatened tariffs of its own.

Wei Jian Guo, of the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges said: ‘American cars, aircraft, soya beans and microchips could be hit. China is not afraid. Mr Trump should know that this is a very bad idea, and there will be no winner… There will be no good outcome for both nations.’ The news led to Wall Street’s Dow Jones Index dropping by 2.9 per cent – its worst one-day fall since early February.

Donald Trump is antagonising new targets every week, sacking nearly everyone in his administration who disagrees with him and denying every time a scandal hits him personally or his many cohorts, who seem to sustain him so far.

The Ides of March have passed, but for how long? That’s the big question looming on the horizon.