Monthly Archives: June 2018

No Longer With Us

Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas in 1921-1995. After attending Columbia University in New York she worked as a freelance journalist until the publication of her first novel Strangers on a Train (1950) which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Her numerous psychological thrillers include The Blunderer (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960, filmed 1979), Those Who Walk Away (1976), A Dog’s Ransom (1972) and People Who Knock on the Door (1983). The Talented Mr Ripley, the first of the Ripley series, was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll. The world she creates was described by Graham Greene as claustrophobic and irrational, ‘one we enter each time with a sense of personal danger’. Patricia Highsmith lived in Switzerland.

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Your parents separated before you were born, at a time when separation and divorce were not as common as they are now. Did you feel different from other children?

Frankly, no. I was born in my grandmother’s house in Texas. It was a very warm, friendly atmosphere, and I was very happy until I was six years old when I was taken up to New York, but even there it wasn’t bad. It was suddenly different to be amidst all those people, but I remember getting along very well with the blacks in my school because they seemed to have the same accent. And New York is always interesting.

You seem to have had a highly unusual childhood … do you remember it as an unhappy time, or did you just accept your circumstances?

I had to accept them. My mother remarried when I was three or four, and she was rather a neurotic type to say the least, always picking quarrels with my stepfather, so life was a little bit difficult.

Do you believe that childhood influences and environment shape and mould our adult lives?

I believe very much what the Roman Catholic say about a child up to the age of seven. Moral training has taken place by then, and my grandmother was rather strict on those things. She was not severe, but she knew what was right and wrong, and nobody ever tried to cross her. I’m quite sure that left its mark on me.

Did you ever regret being an only child?

No. I never missed having brothers and sisters. Even now, although I very much like people, I am happy to live alone. The main point is that I can’t work with anybody else in the house, so if I lived with somebody I’d have to give up my work, or else somehow create a small house on the lawn and just take myself off there.

You didn’t meet your real father until you were twelve years old. Can you recall your feelings at that time?

I was shy and also curious. It was in my grandmother’s house and I saw him for only five or ten minutes – we didn’t even sit down. He took a look at my hand, as if to say, yes, you’re my child, but he was almost a stranger, rather brusque and formal.

Did you see him later in life?

Yes. After the first encounter, he walked me to school and back a couple of times. Later between high school and college I went to Texas again to visit my grandmother, and I saw a great deal of him then. We went out to dinner and I met a lot of his friends.

And did you like him?

In my opinion, there was nothing to dislike about him.

Your novels are often concerned with anxiety, confused relationships and loss of identity, which would seem to be the outstanding features of your own childhood … would you agree?

I don’t see the loss of identity. I took the name Highsmith which was my stepfather’s name, but that is not a loss of identity. In any case, fiction writers tend to write about problems, not about happy families. I wrote about murders, but I never want to murder anybody.

How would you describe your relationship with your stepfather? Was he to all intents and purposes your father, or were there barriers?

He was not what you would call a strong father figure, or indeed a strong anything. He was a man of very good character, a mild man whom my mother bossed around. I was about sixteen when I began to realize it was my mother who was causing the difficulties. But I don’t feel his influence. I had to make my own character.

It seems that your mother explained family circumstances to you when you were ten years old, but that you had worked things out for yourself before then. Did you feel betrayed by that, or angry that she hadn’t told you before?

No. I did not feel angry at all. She had simply been evading the issue, putting it off.

I read somewhere about your mother losing one of your manuscripts which you interpreted as an act of terrible indifference. You must have felt very hurt and disappointed.

Not really. By then I was already thirty-four years old – I know because it was the time of my grandmother’s death. My mother did not take care of things and she lost the manuscript along with a lot of other papers, my letters to my grandmother, my college exam results, and so on. But I did not think it malicious. She was simply disorganized.

Do you think that your experience, or perhaps lack of experience of men during your formative years – absent father, stepfather, ect. – led to a mistrust of men in later life?

No, because I had boyfriends from the age of sixteen. And, as a matter of fact, I regarded my stepfather as being very trustworthy.

The heroes of your book are invariably men. The women are less interesting – they are often sluttish or have disagreeable habits. Do you have a kind of contempt for your own gender?

No. Edith’s Diary, for instance, is entirely about a woman and her struggles, a woman who tried to do her best. She failed in the end, but I think I wrote about her with considerable respect.

Your Little Tales of Misogyny, in the words of the blurb, shows ‘the generic awfulness of the female sex’. Were they written tongue-in-cheek, or with an underlying conviction?

With a conviction about certain aspects of women, such as a kind of phoniness and trying to be oh-so-correct, but one could do the same kind of book about men, a similar exaggeration of masculine traits.

Do you feel a sense of solidarity with your fellow women?

No. I’ve never been in that position. I can be in favour of women’s causes, but I don’t join them. If it’s a matter of donating a little money, or signing something, I might, but not extra work.

You have been independent all your life, you are successful, your own woman, all of which would seem to make you a shining example of the feminist movement. Have you ever felt strongly about women’s liberation?

Not strongly, no, but I’m not in a job that discriminates against women. I might have become angry if I’d been working in an office all my life.

Your book Carol, published under a pseudonym, describes the love which develops between two women. Why did the subject interest you?

Because society was more against love between women in those days, and I thought it was a good story, especially with the ex-husband in pursuit, making things as difficult as possible. I wasn’t consciously trying to convey a particular message, but I wanted to give it a happy ending.

Why did you write it under a pseudonym?

I was already labelled as a mystery writer, even though Strangers on a Train was not a mystery, and I didn’t want to be labelled as a gay writer. My publishers wanted another book like Strangers on a Train, but as usual I wrote what I wanted to.

It was unusual in those days to give a positive portrayal of homosexuality. Were you trying to shock, or make people examine their prejudices, or what?

Neither. I was trying to tell a story which I thought was interesting.

Your heroine Carol has to face the choice of losing her daughter or losing her lover, but there is no attempt to portray the situation from the child’s point of view, or to engage the reader’s sympathy with the child. I wonder if you perhaps lack a natural sympathy with children…

The child is only ten and I don’t think a ten-year-old would have been able to understand the situation then, or the feelings of society towards lesbianism. Besides, I don’t know much about children because I haven’t been around children since I was a child myself. Frankly I’m not particularly interested in children.

Have you ever wanted to have children?

No. Absolutely not. I think it’s very difficult to raise children properly, and I cannot live with people round me.

You live quite a reclusive existence. Is that how you planned it, or did it just happen that way?

To say I am a recluse is journalistic nonsense, as though I made an effort to stay alone, which is not the case. I like talking to people on the phone, I like people to drop by for a coffee. I do not consider myself a recluse.

You have always avoided literary circles or discussion with other writers. Do you think they might be too incestuous or is it perhaps a fear of boredom?

I’m not inclined to talk about my work before it is finished – I think it is very dangerous to do so – and then when a book is finished, why talk about it? To me another writer is not enough of a challenge mentally. I very much prefer painters and sculptors and photographers; they have a different way of seeing life.

In your books violence seems to take place almost as much in the head as in any overt way. Do you think this is a true reflection of the way it is, that most violence is cerebral, and seldom actually manifests itself?

I’m not interested in brute force, which is what prevails in the world today. The kind of people I write about debate with themselves beforehand – should they do it or not? This makes for more thinking about violence in my books than doing it.

You have said that you find the public passion for justice boring and artificial because ‘neither life nor nature cares if justice is done or not’. What exactly do you mean by that?

It’s a rather extreme remark, but even justice frequently goes wrong. There are cases of men and women falsely accused of murder. Also, only eleven per cent of murders are discovered now. Some people don’t count for very much so the police don’t try very hard to find out who killed them. In the majority of cases nobody cares enough to catch the murderer, especially in America where the jails are full and the police are very busy.

The world you portray is a very cynical one, full of emotional cripples. Is this for you a totally imaginary world, or does it reflect your experience of life?

The world is certainly full of very strange people. It’s a matter of degree. Sometimes people are just quirky which makes them interesting and funny and sometimes their quirks are terribly serious.

In 1965 you said that you were sick of violence and butchery and psychopaths … yet psychopaths have followed you into the 90s.

Well, I made a mistake in 1965 then.

Graham Greene once described you as ‘the poet of apprehension rather than fear’. Is that a description you’re pleased with?

Yes, I regard that as a compliment. Apprehension implies that my books leave something to the imagination. The reader is made curious about what is going to happen.

He also said that your world is one ‘without moral endings’, in other words justice is often not done and the villains are free to carry on with their evil doings. Do you see yourself as seriously challenging the normal moral scheme of things, or is it purely a game, an entertainment?

It’s more of a game. I’m principally interested in telling a good story.

But your novels often invite discussions of morality, fuelled by characters like Ripley who murder without conscience and get away with it. What message are you aiming to give people?

None. I’m simply trying to create an interesting story. Some people might say Ripley’s attitude is impossible but I think his lack of conscience is entirely believable. My books are written to entertain. I don’t consider myself a deep thinker; I’m much more an intuitive kind of person.

Your book People Who Knock on the Door was dedicated to, ‘The courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in the struggle to regain a part of their homeland.’ Why did you make that political gesture?

Because I thought it was right that I should. I blame my own country to some extent for what is going on now. I know people blame England for the mandate which led to all this, but America finances it now to a great degree. They also have the press under control and people are more or less told to shut up. Well, I don’t feel like shutting up. I think statements about injustice should be made. It’s shocking the way people sit in Long Island saying that the Palestinians should get their act together. When Hitler used the gun and the boots on the Jews nobody told them to get their act together. Nobody is able to face up to the gun. The Palestinians can’t even form small collectives to grow vegetables in poor soil on their own West Bank and Gaza without the Israelis breaking them up.

But what first brought the Palestinian cause to your attention?
The atrocity of it, the absolute injustice of the situation.

I understand you won’t allow your books to be published in Israel. Do you think gestures like that have any effect?

No, only in a very small way. I’m sure the world couldn’t care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what’s happening. That is what the Israelis want, and that’s frankly what they get round the New York area. From a humane point of view America turns too much of a blind eye to what Israel is doing there.

Do you feel as you grow older that your writing gets better and better?

That’s very tough. Unfortunately, I feel a tremendous slowing up; everybody does at my age, I think. Also life becomes more complicated as one grows older. There’s more paperwork, income-tax returns for two countries – all this has become burdensome somehow.

You have described the criminal as a free spirit. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

It’s not very flattering to the criminal because he just does anything he wants. It’s not something that I admire, but he’s definitely free in that respect. The rest of us have certain constraints, which is normal. For example, there are one or two people in my life whom I absolutely detest, but to murder them is out of the question.

Your heroes are usually unscrupulous, amoral and sometimes schizoid. Is it simply that they are more dramatically interesting figures to write about, or does your attention to them run deeper than that?

It’s not so much attraction. I find them interesting, puzzling. Nobody questions why somebody is good, but most people are curious about a murderer – they want to know why. Also there is entertainment value in somebody getting away with something. One may disapprove, but it’s still fascinating.

Ripley differs from your other heroes in that he appears to have no conscience. Other characters are much more concerned with their own guilt. Is Ripley the exception … in art as in life?

Ripley is abnormal in the sense that he doesn’t feel the same amount of guilt as other people. He feels guilty for the first murder and then is reconciled to others. I have to say that he’s exceptional.

It has sometimes been said that you are in love with Ripley, the rather likable psychopath. Does this strike you as an absurd suggestion?

It’s just an exaggeration. I like to write about him, yes, but that’s all. It’s a silly phrase, ‘in love’.

Have you ever been in love with a man?

In a way, yes. When I was around twenty-one…

What happened?

Nothing happened. It turned into friendship, and we were friends until he died.

Have you ever regretted not marrying?

No.

Lucretia Stewart who interviewed you for the Telegraph wrote as follows: ‘Her manner, which is at once diffident and disdainful, precludes intrusive questioning. It is not a secret that she is or has been a lesbian, but it would have been impossible to ask her about her private life.’ How do you react to that?

It’s better than some things I’ve read. If she wants to put that, it’s OK by me.

What about the suggestion that you are a lesbian?

OK. Fine. But I don’t talk about it.

Have you been a lesbian?

Yes.

One concludes from reading your books that happiness is a frail commodity, touched by anxiety and often guilt. Has that been your own experience perhaps?

Very often with regard to people, yes, but it does not apply to happiness in general. Many people of course want to say that I’m unhappy, that I’m reclusive, but I’m not going to be unhappy just because somebody tells me I am.

In all the attention given to death in your books, do you ever contemplate your own?

No, although I would really like to be sure about my will. I have made a will, actually written it in holograph which is what the Swiss want, but I have a feeling it isn’t finalized yet. The most important thing is to have everything well organized before one’s death; that is more important than the phenomenon of dying.

Do you see the world as a friendly place?

In principle, yes. I have an optimistic attitude. When I get up in the morning, I first of all make the coffee and then I say to my cat, we’re going to have a great day…

 

 

THE TIGRESS IN ACTION

Paola Diana is, amongst other things, a human tigress who refuses to take prisoners. When I first met her, before deciding to publish an English edition of her best-selling Italian book, she played our whole encounter in a low key manner. It never suggested the enormity of her boiling conviction, or her capacity to subdue the most virulent of those detractors she was likely to come across in her campaign to elevate women in their struggle to gain equality and respect.

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Now, with Saving the World in print, she proves without equal as she literally exploded on the British publishing scene. She has the kind of gusto which one rarely sees nowadays, in a Society which has lost its stance to fight for the underprivileged lest it conflicts with its own way of life.

Paola’s determination to go against this trend is to be admired and supported in every way possible. Here is her interview in full with the Hill Residents magazine which shows the extent of her fight on behalf of women who she believes are still a long way from the equality they deserve.

Buy her book and you’ll be surprised by the eloquence and fire which resonates on every page.

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Below is the said interview in full:

It’s not long into my chat with entrepreneur and author Paola Diana that she describes herself as a rebel. And, as soon as she says it, it’s obvious that it is the perfect description for the Notting Hill-based entrepreneur and author who has dedicated much of her career to empowering women and shedding stereotypes.

It’s something she loves to talk about everywhere from her blogs for the Huffington Post to her feminist and political commentary on radio and TV, and it’s what her new book is all about. A rallying call for gender equality, the book follows the plight of women throughout history, the current socio-political situation and what can be done for the future in a part manifesto for change part historical and sociological essay.

‘My theory is the new kind of humanitarian feminism,’ she tells me as we sit in her beautiful Notting Hill office. ‘That is the one I’m talking about [in the book], and is the one I hope everyone will embrace one day. It’s all about men who are enlightened and who understand the struggle that women went through during the centuries and now are ready to stand with them and fight with them in order to end this kind of discrimination, violence and abuse that is unfortunately still going on around the world but also here in our country.’

Diana has adapted her book from her original bestselling Italian publication into a new edition, complete with a bold new title – Saving the World. ‘It might sound very bold but for me it’s actually the truth,’ she smiles when I ask her where the title came from. ‘It’s completely realistic because in my opinion we have to save women all over the world in order for them to help us in saving the world because we need the values that women cherish the most. I’m talking about compassion, I’m talking about sharing, caring, empathy, that is fundamental, and love of course.’

During our impassioned chat, it’s clear that feminism holds an extremely important place in Diana’s heart, and she tells me that it was her upbringing in Padua in northern Italy, which helped mould these views from a very young age.

‘It was very difficult – I was living in a very patriarchal and conservative family,’ she explains. ‘I felt oppressed, I felt it was wrong, I felt there was nothing right in this kind of education, especially towards me as I was the youngest one in the family and I was a little girl, and my father was very bad with me as well. I’ve always been a rebel, thank god, this is my character, this is the way I think I could survive and I could understand I didn’t want to become a victim,’ she adds.

It was also this rebellious ambition which led her to study political science at university and a complete master’s degree in institutional relationships after having her children. Then, in her late twenties, she began working behind the scenes on the campaign for twice Italian prime minister and former president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi.

Now she is well known in London as the founder of three international companies under The Diana Group, a service finding nannies and other household staff called Nanny & Butler, the luxury concierge member’s club Sigillus and the secretarial staff headhunting company Supreme PA. But, it wasn’t always such smooth sailing for Diana who admitted she struggled to find work as a young mother.

‘Before, after my bachelor’s degree, I tried to work, tried to find a job and no one called me for an interview, can you imagine?’ she explains. ‘That’s why now that I’m successful, I have made my own company, I’m my own boss, I have offices around the world, clients around the world, I’m really laughing if I think about the struggle at the beginning.’

And she is certainly successful, managing her businesses out of her Notting Hill office after permanently relocating to the UK with her two children.

‘I love it,’ she enthuses about the area. ‘It has this kind of village vibe, it’s incredible and my office is here facing Hyde Park, literally like three minutes walking. I love to walk to come to the office, no matter if it’s raining, if it’s sunny, I really enjoy it.’ She adds that you can’t beat Notting Hill’s restaurants and cafes. ‘I love Farmacy, the vegan restaurant in Westbourne Grove, it’s like my kitchen,’ she smiles. ‘I always go there when I have time. I love to have brunch at Granger and Co, especially on Sundays and then I really like Beach Blanket Babylon.’

With her fingers in so many pies, one of the things that strikes me most about Diana is that she thrives off being busy. Therefore, I’m not surprised when she tells me that she’s already planning to write another book, this time about domestic violence, which is an issue she feels particularly passionate about. ‘It’s like we have an elephant in the room and we’re not talking about the elephant,’ she explains. ‘We can break this, we can break this chain, there’s nothing that says this is not breakable,’ she adds. ‘And this is the time I think. This would be the real freedom for women.’

With her insightful and optimistic words playing on my mind, I leave her for a busy day of meetings and plans to speak on the BBC about the formation of the Italian government. It’s much later when I think back on our talk that it occurs to me that perhaps rebel is not quite the right word for Diana – I’d go with trailblazer.

Saving the World by Paola Diana is published by Quartet Books and is on sale now at £12.50.

 

 

ORGASM’S THE KEY…

I’m rather surprised to learn that it is now men who tell their wives or partners, ‘Not tonight dear.’ If this stereotype is to be believed it’s invariably women who feign a headache and turn to their spouse, not tonight dear. For one has often assumed that when it comes to sex, men find it very difficult to abstain when sex is offered but, lo and behold, research suggests that it’s actually men who are often responsible for the lack of sex in a marriage – because they feel under pressure to perform.

A review of 64 studies into complex love lives has found that men are put off sex by the expectation that they will make the first move and, just like women, a lack of emotional connection is the fear that their partner finds them unattractive may also turn them off from a night of passion. The result of the analysis confounds stereotypes by showing it is women, not men, who are likely to go off sex because they have been with their partner for a long time. They also show emotional connections is important to both halves of a couple.

The authors, led by Dr Kristen at the University of Kentucky said: ‘There are assumptions in our culture that women have lower sexual desire than men, and that it is abnormal for women to have high sexual desire, or for men to have low sexual desire. However, research in recent years has clearly shown that these gender-based assumptions about sexual desire are not supported by data. Men feel pressure from their wives, girlfriends or society in general to initiate sex, even when they do not want it, the research suggests. They worry that they won’t have erotic feelings or that they will fail to perform and this can create a negative feedback loop which ruins their love life. Women are expected to put off sex if they do not feel emotionally close to their husbands,’ the experts write in the Journal of Sex Research.

But men who have more emotional intimacy with their partner are also more likely to want to sleep with them. The authors’ state: ‘Men who felt a lack of emotional connection with their partners experience lower sexual desire as well.’ The advice for both sexes the authors conclude is to accept that desire ebbs and flows in any relationship. The assumption that men have higher sexual desires than women overall is simply not consistently supported by the data in the context of relationships.’

Although personally I can’t claim to be an expert on sexual desire, I honestly believe that sexual desire in women is normally much higher than that in men and the fact that women can have multiple orgasms of longer duration proves the point.

BEARING THE BURDEN

My wife died over two years ago and her loss was truly devastating. As a result, I now suffer from insomnia, and eating on my own when at home makes me sad beyond belief and has seriously affected my intake of food. Recently, I read that eating meals alone is the biggest cause of unhappiness after mental illness, a study has found.

A quarter of adults eat alone most of the time, often because of hectic life styles or social isolation and this seems to make us more unhappy than financial problems or physical disabilities, the researchers discovered. For the study more than 8,000 people were asked questions that measured happiness, satisfaction, self-worth and anxiety on a well-being scale from zero to one hundred, called the Living Well Index.

Those who always ate alone scored almost 8 points lower on average than those who never did. Nearly a fifth of those who live by themselves said they eat alone all of the time, particularly those who are single or overworked. Most retired people, however, said they never or occasionally eat alone and unsatisfactory sex lives, sleep deprivation or feeling time-pressured were also significant causes of unhappiness.

Chris Sherwood, head of the relationship counselling service, Relate said: ‘We know that good quality relationships with friends and family are essential to our well-being so it’s good to see the power of face-to-face interaction coming through so strongly on the Living Well Index. Eating together more often is a simple way of enhancing your connection with others, so why not give it a try?’

The study, published by Sainsbury’s and carried out by Oxford Economics and the Centre for Social Research, states: ‘While this analysis suggests that eating alone may be detrimental to people’s well-being, the barriers to sitting down to eat in groups more regularly are many and complex. For some, a failure to do so may be driven largely by social isolation and a lack of personal connections. For others, the key barrier could be spending time in their otherwise hectic life-styles.’

The study found six in ten single people eat alone, compared to only one in eight of those in relationships. With more people living by themselves, or divorcing later in life, there are concerns that traditional cooked family meals are in decline. Some thirty per cent of people who work more than 60 hours a week ate alone or most of the time, compared to twenty-two per cent of the general working population. The Well-Being Index found childless people in Generation X aged 35-54 are the least socially connected, while young families are the most well connected. Baby Boomers, meanwhile, were found to benefit from close relationships with neighbours. The average figure for well-being came in at 60.7 out of 100, with almost half of that deficit of happiness attributed to four factors: those who were eating alone, having a poor sex life, lack of sleep or time pressure.

Eating alone lowered a person’s score on average by 7.9 points below the 60.7 figure with a mental health condition lowering it by 8.5 points. It comes after Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, called for GPs to be able to refer patients to social activities for combating loneliness and commencing a national publicity campaign to highlight the problem.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe of the Local Government Association’s Community Well-Being Board said: ‘There needs to be greater public awareness of loneliness as a serious illness. We all need to be on the look-out for each other.’

My own problem, as I mentioned at the outset, was triggered off by the loss of my beloved wife of 60 years. The pain of that loss manifests itself in many ways and hopefully only the passage of time and my special memories of that union will eventually remedy my present travails.

BEWARE THE LURE OF FASHIONABLE DIETS

Although trendy crash diets often do not work in the long run, we now know they have also been found to damage the heart. They might seem like the perfect way to lose weight in a hurry, but their consequences have been found to cause sudden deteriorations of the heart.

The so-called meal replacement programmes to slash daily energy intake to 600-800 calories, down from the recommended 2000-2500, and have reportedly been adopted by celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé, can ultimately have a negative health effect.

A study led by the University of Oxford found very low calorie diets have a negative impact on heart function as well as blood pressure cholesterol. The sudden drop in food intake releases fat from the body which ends up in the heart muscle. After just one week, researchers found that people on the diet had increased their heart fat content by 44 per cent. The dramatic deterioration in heart function was short-lived but researchers warned there could be dangers for those with underlying cardiac problems.

The study’s lead author, Dr Jennifer Rayner, said: ‘Crash diets, also called meal-replacement programmes, have become increasingly fashionable in the past few years. But the effects on the heart have not been studied until now.’

The study included 21 obese volunteers with an average age of 52 who were put on a crash diet for 8 weeks. MRI scans were used to measure the effect of the diet on the heart, and the distribution of fat in the abdomen, liver and heart muscles. It took one week for the participants’ heart fat content to rise by almost 50 per cent, making it harder for the muscles to pump blood. This is the opposite of what was expected, as the effect of weight loss should improve heart function.

Explaining the results, Dr Rayner said: ‘The sudden drop in calories causes fat to be released from different parts of the body into the blood and be taken up by the heart muscles. The heart muscle prefers to choose between fat and sugar as fuel and being swamped by fat worsens its function.’ However, she added: ‘After the acute period in which the body is adjusting to dramatic calorie restriction, the fat content and function of the heart improves. The diet did reduce people’s body fat in just one week by 6 per cent. Participants also saw falls in blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, along with the reduction of 41per cent in liver fat. And after two months, participants’ heart fat content and function were better than they were before going on the diet. But effects of such a sudden drop in heart function were unclear.’

For people with heart problems it could make the condition worse, aggravating heart failure symptoms such as shortness of breath and increasing risk of an irregular heartbeat. Dr Rayner said crash diets do have benefits but she warned that those with cardiac issues should speak to a doctor before trying one. The research, partly funded by the British Heart Foundation, was presented at CMR 2018, the meeting held by the European Society of Cardiology, in Spain.

It’s clear that the upshot of the research is to warn people with cardiac problems to seek medical advice before tampering with crash diets. They could be damaging their hearts and risking a fatal outcome.

No Longer With Us

JAMES LEES-MILNE

James Lees-Milne was a conservationist and architectural historian, having written extensively on the baroque, the Tudor renaissance, Indigo Jones and the City of Rome. He was born in 1908 and educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. From 1933-66 he worked for the National Trust and from 1951-66 he was their advisor on historic buildings. He was also the founding secretary of the National Trust’s country Houses Scheme. He wrote a biography of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, The Bachelor Duke (1991), and his two-volume biography of Harold Nicolson won the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982. His four volumes of diaries placed him among the foremost diarists of the century. He died in 1997.

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I interviewed him in 1995. Here is what he told me then.

You seem to have a dislike of being labelled – whether it be ‘doyen of conservationists’ or ‘biographer’ or ‘architectural historian’. Would you have any objection to being described as a man of parts?

I imagine a man of parts is someone who is very versatile and good at lots of things. But I’m not good at anything, not even one particular thing.

Your diaries are littered with famous names from the past – Mitford, Pope-Hennessy, Sackville-West, John Betjeman, and so on. Do people nowadays seem very dull by comparison?

Alas, I belong to the past. I wish I could claim to know interesting young people. I do know a few but they can’t be bothered with somebody like me. It’s not that I think young people dull at all but they’re rather different. I’ve got nothing against them, and they are very nice to me and very tolerant, much nicer than my generation were to old people.

You survived an extraordinary childhood, and like most children you seemed to accept your circumstances. Did you sometimes long for normality?

I didn’t think there was anything abnormal about my upbringing, and I don’t think so now. My parents weren’t cruel to me at all; indeed they were very nice to me. My father was rather distant, that’s all, but in those days children were kept in the background. I only saw them at 5 o’clock. I was made to change into a tidy pair of shorts, clean shirt, and then I was pushed by my nurse into the drawing room, where I had to make myself agreeable for half an hour. It was very boring for my parents, and it wasn’t much fun for me.

Although you write entertainingly of your childhood, it seems to have been a rather unhappy time, characterized by fear. You seem to have spent more time with the servants than with your parents – in fact it comes over as a rather loveless environment. Would you agree with that?

No, not wholly, because my mother loved me very much and she was very amusing and unconventional. As I got older and she got older I suppose in a beastly way I became aware of her limitations, and we drifted apart rather. But I always remained very fond of her.

Saying goodbye to your mother when you left for Eton you describe as ‘heartrending’…can you recall that feeling?

Oh yes, but then you see, all boys of my generation wept for days beforehand because school was so horrible. It wasn’t so much that home was so nice, it was because school was so beastly that we wept.

You say that Eton fostered in you intellectual and aristocratic tastes, despite your circumstances which you describe as low brow and lower upper class. Have you felt that as a tension, a dichotomy throughout your life?

My background was a philistine one, that’s to say my father only thought of hunting and shooting and racing and gambling. He wasn’t a rich man, just a sort of ordinary squire, but he lived in a small manor house, so I suppose we were what one calls gentry, but you’ve no idea how limited they were in those days. They despised learning, they never went to art exhibitions, they didn’t go to concerts, their friends were all exactly the same, and I never felt easy with them when I grew up. I did want to get away from them, that’s quite true.

In your autobiography you say, ‘I’m actually conscious of, and amused by, class distinctions. I love them and hope they endure forever.’ What lay behind that remark?

I think class distinctions are fascinating. All the great novels are about class…just think of the Russian classics of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There’s a sort of leadenness about life when there are no class distinctions.

Does the political idea of a classless society fill you with horror?

It fills me with gloom. It’s not that I like people because they belong to the aristocracy, but on the whole there’s a sort of illumination, a casualness about the aristocratic view of life which I find rather appealing. They don’t take themselves very seriously – think of Nancy Mitford, for whom everything was a joke up to a point – and they’re sophisticated and amusing. Then of course they have lovely country houses to stay in, and the English country house is something very special.

You say you were a terrible disappointment to your father. Was that difficult to deal with?

Yes it was, because he made me feel that I was a total failure because I didn’t have a good seat on a horse. And I didn’t care for shooting. It bored me, and anyway I didn’t like killing things. So he thought I was cissy. He didn’t bother about whether I was doing well in my schoolwork, but he would have liked me to have been sporting and thereby accepted by his friends as a good old chip off the block. As it was, I think they thought very little of me.

After Eton you stayed briefly at the home of Lord Redesdale. How did your family compare with the Mitfords in terms of eccentricity?

My parents weren’t eccentric at all, so there was no comparison to be made. Tom, my friend, was my link with the Mitfords, and it was through him that I went to stay there. I found that Diana, the one who was nearest to me in age after Tom, was mad about poetry and literature, and that was marvellous to me. I realized that there was a world which was completely different from boring Worcestershire, the manor house with its horses and guns, and I thought, this is too wonderful.

Tom Mitford remained your friend until he was killed in the war. You rather gloss over his death in your book…was it shattering to you?

I was very upset, and so were all his friends. We all were devoted to Tom. I saw him the evening before he left England. He didn’t want to fight against the Germans, so he went to Burma and was killed at once by the Japanese. I remember being told of his death by Nancy who rang me up and said in a sort of offhand way, ‘Oh, by the way, you know Tomford’s dead.’ They all had nicknames for each other, and she used to call him Tomford. I thought that was too much of a stiff upper lip, but that was the way they were brought up, not to show their feelings.

You were rebuked by James Pope-Hennessy for what he calls your ‘collapse from pacifism’, which paved the way to your joining the Irish Guards in 1940. Can you tell me how you came to adopt pacifism, and what made you relinquish it?

In between the wars I had convinced myself that the First War was totally unnecessary and was the most appalling calamity, and that no war was ever justified. I don’t think that in the late 1930s I was so aware of the iniquities of Hitler as I was when the war was over, and that applied to a lot of English people. But one of my great friends, Robert Byron, a traveller and writer, was passionately anti-Hitler. I was feeling very ambivalent when the war came, and he convinced me that I should join up and be prepared to fight. So I did.

There were a number of notable pacifists at the time, including Frances and Ralph Partridge. Were you influenced by them at all?

I didn’t know Frances Partridge until after the war. She remains an absolute confirmed pacifist, but the awful thing I learned is that it’s no good being a pacifist unless everyone else is. You’ve got to stand up to evil. And how can you do it except by fighting?

Oxford seems to have been a profound disappointment to you…why was that?

I had the idea that it was going to be a quiet secluded beautiful city, which of course it is, and that there I would lead a cloistered existence, and study, and that dons would take an interest in me, because I was young and earnest. But they didn’t because I wasn’t clever enough, unlike all my Eton friends. They also all seemed to have money and I had none at all. It was very difficult for me, because they used to entertain and give luncheon parties, and there was lots of drink and they were raffish and exciting and thrilling. I couldn’t compete; so I minded.

But did you sow your wild oats in Oxford?

Not very much. I led a quiet life really. I was always very romantic about women and frightened of them when I was young. The idea of casually sleeping with a woman before I was about twenty-five would never have entered my head. Women were people to be courted, and they were romantic. Diana Mitford, for example, was always up there on a celestial cloud, somebody to be worshipped. I suppose I felt sexy, but that was something quite different, and you went to a brothel for that, though I never did. I was terrified of that too. But the idea of meeting a girl at a party and then going to bed with her, it never occurred to me…

Your father had a profound contempt for intellectuals. Did you allow that to influence you at all?

It made me rather secretive in the sense that I would read books under the bedclothes with a torch so that my father wouldn’t see the electric light thorough the crack between the door and the floorboards. And I had to hide my books because when I went back to school my father would throw them away. He thought reading was something rather decadent.

You fell under the spell of Keats, Shelly and Byron, and later Gerard Manley Hopkins. Was Hopkins instrumental in your conversion to Roman Catholicism?

I think he may have been, yes. I thought I was going to write a life of Hopkins. In fact whenever Peter Quennell gave me a book he would say, ‘To the future biographer of Father Gerard.’ Of course I never got down to it; I wasn’t capable of it.

When you were a young man, your faith was uncomplicated, and it took you years to work out that it was because you never associated morals with God. Was it shattering to discover that the two might be related?

Yes, it was rather, because I found going to confession very distasteful. When I no longer belonged to the Church of Rome, I went back to my old church. I’ve always been rather religiously minded. As a child I was mad about God, and still am, and I love talking about Him, but people get embarrassed by God, don’t they? I mean, most of my friends are agnostics, but I’m certainly not. I am a fervent believer, but of course I don’t have to worry about morals now very much, because I have no temptations to steal or go to bed with anybody.

You appear to have lost your faith for a time when, as you put it, ‘morals began to rear their beastly hydra heads’. Was that a difficult time?

It was an embarrassing time. I thought, I can’t go back to the same priest, or any priest, and say, ‘I’ve done it again, father’ – I just can’t. It’s totally off-putting, and I think it’s all nonsense too.

I’m wondering what religion could have meant to you, how it could have been experienced by you as something distinct from moral behaviour…

I think it’s all to do with the afterlife and the purpose of life. I would have found it very difficult to get to the age of eighty-six if I hadn’t believed in God.

In Another Self you describe the period when you were in love with three people at the same time saying: ‘I reached heights of ecstasy wherein I came closer to God than ever before or since.’ That’s quite a significant statement…can you enlarge on it?

It was true. I was in love with two people whom I knew, and one whom I’d never seen, but whom I adored. This was during the war and we simply spoke on the telephone. It is quite easy to be in love with more than one person, very easy indeed. It’s only really embarrassing when they meet.

Sex and God do seem to have been recurrent themes with you. In 1942 you recorded in your diary: ‘The lusts of the flesh, instead of alienating me from God, seem to draw me closer to Him in a perverse way.’ Was that perhaps just wishful thinking?

No, because somehow love or lust did bring me closer to God. I had lustful feelings, but in fact the objects of my desire were nearly always people that I was in love with. I think one can identify the loved one with God, as perhaps nuns and monks do. The sex I had then was not squalid; it seemed to me a fulfilment of myself, almost a sort of union with God. But I think my views of God perhaps are unorthodox. I think of God as the spirit of light and of goodness and understanding…perhaps one shouldn’t really.

After your conversion to Rome you returned to the Church of England. Was your experience of Roman Catholicism a brief flirtation, or was it more like a painful love affair?

I treated it in a rather offhand way. Had I been born a Roman Catholic I should still have been one, I think, but what I liked about being a Roman Catholic was the universality of it, and what always gave me satisfaction was realizing that the mass was being said all the way round the clock – every moment of the day it was being said somewhere, the same liturgy; but when the Vatican Council changed that, I turned against it. I thought it a tragedy.

As a young man you say that the idea of sex without love shocked you. Did it continue to shock you throughout your life?

Oh yes, I was shocked by myself very much when I had sex without love. I thought it was squalid, and of course now that I’m the age I am, sex means nothing to me at all; it’s either a joke or it’s really rather disgusting, besides being a frightful bore.

There is a very poignant account of a brief but intense friendship with a young man – Theodore, I think – which ends in tears. It also seemed to strain the limit of heterosexuality…was that a worry for you?

No, not a bit, because I’ve never discriminated between hetro- and homosexuality really. I think you can be in love with both, you know…I’ve always found that.

Your first employment was a private secretary to Lord Lloyd from 1931 to 1935. Did that suit you or did you have the feeling that you were in the wrong job?

I felt that I was not in the right job, that I had my way to make in the world, that it was only an interim job, and he realized that too. But looking back on it, it was a very good experience for me because he was a task master and I learned how to work hard.

You then held the post of adviser to the National Trust, which seemed tailor-made for you. In terms of satisfaction and job fulfilment, how would you compare that part of your life with your literary activities?

Although I had secret literary ambitions I never thought I was going to write books until the war. So during the 1930s there was no conflict at all. I dedicated myself to the National Trust work and didn’t even think of writing books.

Do you see yourself as having being engaged in a war with the philistines, preserving wonderful buildings from acts of vandalism, and so on…?

Oh yes, very much so. I was one of the founder members of the Georgian Group in the 1930s, and it was a fight to get the public to recognize that classical buildings in this country were of any importance at all. The Ministry of Works, the government department which had care of the ancient monuments, said that architecture in England ceased in 1714, the year that Queen Anne died, and therefore no Georgian building was even worth looking at.

You are a distinguished biographer, most notably of Harold Nicolson and the 6th Duke of Devonshire. On the face of it biography would seem to be an art form distinct from novel writing or autobiography, but do you perhaps think that the distinction is sometimes blurred, that biography is often closer to fiction than we imagine?

I think you have to control yourself. You mustn’t fictionalize or allow your imagination to take flight when you’re dealing with another man’s life. You have to be careful not to let your prejudices run away with you, and you probably can’t write a very good biography if you dislike your subject.

You have sometimes said that your prefer writing about rogues. What is it that attracts you to rogues?

It is easier to write about rogues than about virtuous men. To write the life of a saint would be frightfully difficult unless it was a funny saint. One of the reasons why newspapers are so wicked and have such an appalling effect on people’s lives is because they deal with bad news and bad people. Good people’s doings are very boring.

Your novel Heretics in Love deals with the themes of Roman Catholicism and incest. Was it meant primarily as an entertainment, or were you intending it as a serious expose of moral and religious problems?

I was trying to see whether one could make a tale of that sort seem plausible. It is about twins of the opposite sex who had grown up in the country as Catholics and had not known or consorted much with the outside world. I wanted to test whether it was possible for two people brought up in those circumstances to fall in love; and whether it was pardonable.

In your third novel, The Fool of Love, the squire Joshua says, ‘So long as one is madly in love one is living in a fool’s paradise.’ Was that remark based on your own experience perhaps?

Yes. Because I think when people are passionately in love they are mad and very unreliable. I think that if one knew that the prime minister was carrying on a passionate affair with someone, one would feel extremely nervous in a crisis.

You were in your forties when you married…were there times before that when you contemplated marriage?

The people I would like to have married were either already married or turned me down, so then I didn’t bother very much for a while. And then suddenly I met Alvilde and I fell in love with her. That was difficult because I was still a Catholic and she had been married before and had a child. She had had a very unsatisfactory married life, in fact she often used to say she couldn’t think how her daughter was ever born at all. Her husband was in love with somebody else, so she had a rotten life. We tried very hard to get an annulment for her, but it turned out to be quite impossible. If it had happened today we probably wouldn’t have cared tuppence whether we were married, but it did seem to matter then, and we were very conventional.

You never had children of your own, and relations with your stepdaughter seem to have been strained. Did you, or do you dislike children?

I don’t care for children very much. When they’re responsive and affectionate I think they’re sweet and nice, but on the whole I find them awfully boring until they’ve become adults.

One review wrote of your latest volume of diaries: ‘Some of Lees-Milne’s opinions are now so wildly outdated and unfashionable that one has to remind oneself that these diaries were written before anyone had thought of political correctness.’ Do you have a view on political correctness?

I think it is deceitful. I’m often accused of being a snob, but really I’m not. What I am is an unashamed elitist; it’s not reprehensible to want to know people who are cleverer than oneself or more amusing.

After hearing a communist express the view that the needs of poor people should take precedence over those of the upper class, you decided that left-wingers were evil and wrote in your diary, ‘I have no sympathy for them at all. Let them burn.’ Is that not an indefensible remark, then as now?

Oh the left-wingers, well, I don’t fancy them. I’m very impatient with them.

Is it difficult not to regard some passages in your diaries as impossibly right wing and racist. For example, a television programmes about Bangladeshis led you to write: ‘Such people ought not to exist…these ghastly people are a sort of standing or seething pollution of the western world’s perimeter, of the civilization we have known. I can’t stand the Orientals, their deceit and abominable cruelty.’ Would you still stand by such comments today?

Very often I would. There are altogether too many of us, and the danger in what is called the third world is absolutely terrifying. Until they can be stopped breeding I really do think the future is very bleak indeed. But I agree, it is a very offensive remark.

In your autobiography you wrote, ‘I prefer to be in the running without ever winning than never to run at all.’ Is this modesty, or lack of ambition?

I don’t think I am ambitious but I do like successful and interesting people, and I’m grateful that they’ve wanted to see me because I get more out of their company than they do from me probably. My life has not been full of achievements. I have yet to write a book that I think is much good. I’m not at all satisfied with myself.

LET THE DESERT BLOOM

China these days is constantly on the move. In a vast desert on the outskirts of Dubai, Chinese scientists looked across a field of ‘drought-resistant’ rice they had planted in the sand and diluted seawater and realised that a four-decade struggle had come to an end.

‘The result was extremely satisfying,’ said Dudele, an official at the Chinese Research Centre pioneering the salt-resistant rice, which many believe could solve food shortages in the world’s most uncultivable regions. ‘We learned that we could grow rice in the desert and we were very happy. We analysed the results and now know how much we can produce,’ he told the Sunday Telegraph.

Rice is commonly grown in freshwater and soil rather than sand and sea-water. And in Dubai, where temperatures can reach a scorching 122 f (50 centigrade) in the day and sandstorms are common, the challenge is more severe. Scientists at the Sea Rice Research & Development Centre in Qingdao, Eastern China, produced more than 3 tons per acre of one strain of salt-resistant rice, which was planted in the dusty Emirate in January. Researchers currently grow the sea-water rice in the salty beaches of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea, and the 50 million acres of Chinese wasteland – an area almost the size of Great Britain – has now been identified for cultivation.

Yuan Longping, China’s ‘father of hybrid rice’ who leads the Qingdao Centre, told the Chinese media the results were better than he had expected and his team is now seeking to expand its research. Plans have been drawn up to establish a 250 acre experimental farm later this year, before ambitious proposals to cover at least 10 per cent of the territory of the United Arab Emirates in paddy fields are rolled out.

Zhang Guodong, deputy director of the Centre, said the company was also considering sea-water rice agreements with several Asian countries including Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka. The company will also establish artificial oases across the Middle East and North Africa which Chinese media said will ‘benefit all Arab countries and help them get rid of poverty and hunger as well as improve the environment.’

China’s entrepreneurial ventures such as these are certainly to be admired since the benefits will be immense, especially to countries where the relief of poverty would be a great humanitarian achievement.