I will be taking a break from the 11th – 25th April and not posting on my blog. I will resume on my return.
I will be taking a break from the 11th – 25th April and not posting on my blog. I will resume on my return.
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!
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.
THE EARLY INFLUENCES
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.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
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.
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.
Well plus ca change…But 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.
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.