Monthly Archives: November 2018

NO LONGER WITH US

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OXFORD TIMES Thursday, November 22, 2018

Lots to learn and enjoy about past heavyweights
GRAY MATTER

CHRIS GRAY
recalls some old titans thanks to a new book

 

It has been fairly said that viewed in their generality the heads of Oxford colleges these days scarcely compare in terms of intellectual gravitas – and in the fame thereby earned – with the titans of the past. How revealing it is to measure the minnows of the moment – media types somewhat to the fore – with the heads of houses in my early years of work here in the 1970s.

Figures like Lord Franks – civil servant, diplomat, banker and consummate committee man – the theologian Henry Chadwick and spy chief Daphne Park graced the lodgings of, respectively, Worcester College, Christ Church and Somerville.

There was, for a time, a highly distinguished crop of historian heads of houses. These included Asa Briggs, an expert on Victorian Britain at Worcester (after Franks), Christopher Hill, acclaimed chronicler of the English Civil War, at Balliol, Adolf Hitler’s first and best British biographer, Alan Bullock, at St Catherine’s, and thenoted authority on Spain, Raymond Carr, at St Antony’s. More famous than any of them – certainly in Conservative circles –was Robert Blake, Provost of The Queen’s College.

The biographer of Earl Haig, Bonar Law and – most brilliantly – Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Blake also wrote the classic history of the Conservative Party, which he served on Oxford City Council and later in the House of Lords. This great man is one of 49 subjects to figure in a hugely entertaining – and, at 823 pages, immensely heavy – new book by the writer and publisher Naim Attallah. His gallery of characters also includes – of Oxford interest –
the lawyer Lord Goodman, a respected Master of University College, the Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper and crime writer P.D. James, who was born and lived in the city.

No Longer With Us (Quartet Books, £30) features the long, in-depth interviews – running to a good few thousand words each – that Attallah conducted during the 1990s for The Oldie magazine. This was his quid pro quo –mutually beneficial – for bankrolling the nascent magazine. Its editor Richard Ingrams allowed him a free hand. As Ingrams explains in an introduction to the book, the aim was to give the interviewer equal prominence to the subject and to “probe for personal disclosures of intimate and hopefully sexual secrets”.

None such were to be extracted, I am relieved to say, from the ultra-respectable Lord Blake, though I did wonder what might be coming when the name of Edmund White entered the conversation. The US writer, who all but invented gay fiction with his 1982 novel A Boy’s Own Story, was mentioned in the context of his views as a biographer(of Jean Genet). Was biography, as White had asked, “a way which allows little men to take revenge on giants”?
“I hope not in my case,” replied Blake. “There are biographers who are simply in the business of debunking, finding out something discreditable, making the person concerned have feet of clay. “I deplore that kind of biography and it’s certainly not one I have ever engaged in myself . . . It is possible, however, to have a balanced biography, even of detested figures in modern history.” He cited the aforementioned Lord Bullock and “his very good book about Hitler”.

In the matter of “finding out something discreditable”, one such biography is alluded to in Ingrams’s introduction. This was the boo Storyteller (2002) in which J.D.F. Jones revealed much to the detriment of Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles’s mate (and Prince William’s godfather) Sir Laurens Van Der Post. Years before this came out, Attallah had bravely put to him the accusation that many people thought him a charlatan. “This is quite absurd,” he thundered.
“These are idiots talking.” Jones later proved that Van Der Post’s long sojourn with the African Bushmen had been largely fantasy.

Worse for his posthumous reputation was the fact that the South African mystic had seduced a 14-year-old girl placed in his charge by her parents on a voyage from the Cape, fathering a child by her and then setting her up as his mistress on arrival in London.

Such a fine moral mentor for an heir to the British throne . . .

 

NO LONGER WITH US

Last evening we celebrated the launch of NO LONGER WITH US at Daunt Books, in Marylebone High Street, to a crowded audience of friends and colleagues, whose range and number made the evening a memorable one.

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Here’s the address I gave which I hope captures the spirit of the occasion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At my age time flies and most people in my position would have retired by now and probably sought comfort in being bored stiff, or perhaps found an ideal pastime which unfortunately has escaped me so far.

But if someone had told me over thirty years ago, when my first book of interviews, WOMEN, was launched in 1987, that I would be celebrating the publication of my eleventh collection of interviews this evening, surrounded by so many friends and colleagues, I would have thought them bonkers.

This latest escapade grew out of my daily blog, as so many of the positive reactions which came my way whenever I remembered interviews with those who had recently left us to continue their journey elsewhere (as must we all), suggested a hunger for more.

There seemed to be a need to revisit the opportunity to remember what I hope you will allow me to call my ‘epic quest’ to capture the voices and experiences of so many of the great, and not so good, men and women who had an impact on all our lives. Compiling the 50 interviews made me realise a somewhat shocking reality that so many of the conversations still read as if they were conducted only yesterday.

Too many people have helped me along the way to mention them all. The book is dedicated to my little granddaughter, named after my dear wife Maria whose death haunts me still. She would have loved this evening. Richard Ingrams was generous in his introduction and I owe him the chance to have begun my interviewing journey with his help. However, in his past role as the editor of Private Eye he lambasted me mercilessly as Naim Attullah-Disgusting and as such he gave me a notoriety which in retrospect did me no harm at all. On the contrary, I became a figure which attracted an attention that catapulted me to celebrity status. For that I’m eternally chuffed.

In concluding this short address it has been my habit to end my book-launch orations with a desperate plea to buy as many copies as can be carried safely through the exit doors, but that would be an inappropriate ending to tonight’s celebration – by demanding you show us the colour of your money. However, I hope your generosity of spirit will nevertheless act as if I had uttered my usual cheeky words, whilst at the same time thanking you all for being here to celebrate with me the crowning glory of my long journalistic literary career.

IMAGINE ALL THOSE PEOPLE…

Those of you who watched the fascinating documentary on Channel 4, Above Us Only Sky, last weekend, may wish to know that Quartet published Dan Richter’s memoir: The Dream is Over, London in the 60s, Heroin and John & Yoko in 2012. He was one of the main contributors to the film, talking freely about what he saw and what he did during the last years of Lennon’s life. Dan was billed in the TV documentary as John Lennon’s ‘assistant’ but perhaps the description he wrote for his memoir is more comprehensive.

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‘I lived with John and Yoko from 1969 to 1973. I was Dan, a friend who came along for the ride, a co-conspirator, attending artist, Chamberlain, confidant, assistant and dope buddy; Yoko’s “American friend”. I was an outsider who witnessed the break-up of the Beatles, John and Yoko in love and John’s transition from being a major rock star to the hagiographic status that he holds today. I was there from the first days at Tittenhurst Park in Ascot where we recorded Imagine to political days in New York and then their retreat into that castle of an apartment house on Central Park West, the Dakota.’

Those who missed the documentary must await its repeat, whenever that will be, as for some unexplained reason, it’s not available on Channel 4 Catch Up. Our book, however, with many original photographs, is still available to order from the Quartet Books website. Another perfect Christmas gift! With money in short supply, at £18 a copy the book’s a real bargain. It might also solve any dilemma about of what to give to friends during the festive season.

A TLS ACCOLADE

Jane Haynes’ new book If I Chance To Talk a Little Wild, just published by Quartet, is receiving a great deal of attention, and deservedly so. In a review in last week’s Times Literary Supplement, the reviewer sheds light on the relationship between patient and therapist as practiced by the author:

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‘Haynes explains that, having moved away from traditional Jungian psychoanalysis to become a “relational psychotherapist”, she “prefers to have a conversation with [her] patients rather than … professing to have spurious access to their unconscious”. In this light she presents herself less as a blank canvas for her patients’ projections than as an “other” being who has the “privilege” of joining her patients in psychotherapy and guiding them through it.

‘ … She tells us, for instance, that “there are some occasions when it is helpful for patient and therapist to become mutual confidents and for the therapist to make relevant self- disclosures”, and gives an example: when one patient described her difficulties surrounding “maternal love”, Haynes tell her that they elucidate some of her own “maternal dilemmas”. “I hope I am helping you as much as you are helping me”, the patient replies. “She is”, Haynes writes.

‘In spite – or perhaps because – of such disclosures, If I Chance To Talk a Little While is a moving and accessible account. In a field that can often be daunting to consider, let alone enter into, Haynes’s memoir provides refreshing and interesting perspectives on the theories of transference, as well as the importance  of the psychoanalytic relationship for both patient and analyst. It also illuminates the paradox of learning to “let go” in psychotherapy: what is let go of is not lost; it is, rather, replaced by a shared experience of self and other.’

As her publisher, I believe this book is destined to become a must for those readers who think, as Jane does, that the relationship between patient and therapist should be one of reciprocity. Buy the book and find out for yourself.

You will be amazed. The courage to speak her mind is certainly tantamount to a current of fresh air. In the circumstances, applauding is the least one can do.

No Longer With Us

Last Friday The Daily Mail reviewed my book No Longer With Us, which will be launched on Wednesday. Here’s what they said:

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“The shortest answer in this glorious collection of in-depth interviews conducted in the Nineties by Naim Attallah, the hugely well-connected publisher, is: ‘No.’

That was from the art critic Brian Sewell, in reply to Attallah asking him whether he had any regrets about writing of the artist R. B. Kitaj (whose wife had just died from stress brought on by savage reviews of her husband’s work), that Kitaj was ‘a vain painter puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art’.

The longest answer is from Lord Lambton, who rambles on for two-and- a-half pages after he is asked whether being born into the aristocracy gave him a special viewpoint on the world. Though he meanders and name-drops, he is not dull.

He says such things as: ‘Don’t make any mistake about it, a great number of the British aristocracy are not charming. Some of them are absolutely minus charm. Charm is quite distinct from breeding. The Irish peasant has enormous charm.’

In their vastly varied lengths, every reply in the book is both gripping and revealing. It’s like Desert Island Discs without the discs, only ten times more probing.

Attallah is a master of the psychologically nosy interview question — and he reveals his own obsessions, one of which is other people’s sex lives.

Of Ned Sherrin, he asks: ‘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?’ But my favourite question (not about sex) was one to John Mortimer: ‘Woody Allen once said of Jesus that he was very well adjusted for an only child. Do you think the same could be said of you?’

Don’t expect much political correctness in these pages. The interviews (39 with men, ten with women) appeared in The Oldie from its founding in 1992, when people could get away with making remarks for which they’d be vilified now.

Hardy Amies says of women: ‘I like them as artistic figures, as a sculptor likes his clay, but on the whole I despise their minds.’

And: ‘Men make better bosses than women do. Because we are more intelligent.’

I’m not sure whether the interviewees were knocking back bottles of wine while chatting, but Attallah certainly gets them to make witheringly rude comments about their contemporaries.

Nigel Dempster describes Ian Hislop as ‘a runtish figure who looked like a sort of bat you see at London Zoo’. And Lord Lambton labels ‘that a**e Runcie’ as ‘the most inadequate Archbishop of Canterbury there has ever been’.

With his provocative questioning, Attallah inspires people to answer provocatively, too. Brian Sewell, in answer to the question ‘Should sex take place in the context of love?’ says: ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, that’s a terribly old-fashioned thing.

‘Sex, like food, works on all sorts of levels. You could go to a restaurant and have something that is exquisitely titillating to the palate, or something that simply stokes the boiler.’

A warning: we’re in a bit of a ‘no checks or balances’ situation here. It was because Attallah was financing The Oldie that he was given free rein to conduct an extended interview in each issue of the magazine.

He owns Quartet Books (the publisher of this volume), so no one dared say to him: ‘Er, Mr Attallah, perhaps this book is a bit too long?’ At 823 pages, it’s not so much a stocking-filler as a stocking-shredder or a bedside-table crusher.

I treated it like a super-sized box of chocolates, reading the interviews in the order of my level of fascination with the people, leaving until last those I hadn’t heard of (as I might leave the marzipan and the hazelnut cluster).

I devoured Diana Mosley, who recalled being hunted (literally like a fox) by her father in the 1910s: ‘You see, he had a bloodhound, and it was rather fun to hunt with him, and we children were there, available. Most men love hunting, after all.’

Her dislike of Churchill comes across strongly: ‘If Churchill had had absolute power, which, thank God, he did not, then who knows what he might have done? Roosevelt and Churchill would have been capables de tout’ (i.e. capable of the same degree of cruelty as Hitler and Stalin).

I lapped up Nigel Nicolson, who bleakly described the failure of his marriage: ‘I lacked my father’s patience with what I saw as the failings of my wife, and she was exactly the same with my failings, and so the marriage dissolved, not in acrimony, but in mutual indifference.’

I warmed to Tony Benn, who recalled: ‘When my daughter was 16, she put up notices all over the house saying: “End sexism in the Benn family.” That altered my attitude quite substantially.’

And I was moved by Elizabeth Jane Howard, speaking about separating from Kingsley Amis: ‘You can live with somebody who doesn’t love you, but you can’t possibly live with somebody who doesn’t actually like you.’

Laurens van der Post I left till later, dreading that he’d bore me stiff — and he does speak a lot of mumbo-jumbo, such as: ‘In Africa, the myth was the earth and the earth was the myth.’

But Attallah, brilliantly, baits him. He asks: ‘Your [book] Venture To The Interior is presented as a Herculean journey but, according to your critics, it amounts to no more than a day’s walk up and down a hill. Do you perhaps mix fantasy with truth sometimes?’

To which van der Post explodes: ‘Who are these idiots? Where do they say these things? I can’t cope with this . . . I shouldn’t have to respond to these remarks; they’re obviously made by singularly stupid people.’ He goes from mystic to maniac.

The book’s dismal title, No Longer With Us, is painfully true. The contents page is a roster of now-dead eccentric figures who flourished in the days when politicians were still well-read.

Denis Healey holds forth about Virginia Woolf, Kipling, Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson; Enoch Powell mentions Shakespeare and Homer.

There are enough gems of wit and wisdom to guide the reader to a serene old age. Here are the ones I’ll stick on my noticeboard . . .

The Duke of Devonshire: ‘If I come away from meeting someone and I’ve been bored, I regard that as my failure.’

John Mortimer: ‘Pessimism is a very good basis for a cheerful outlook on life.’

Tony Benn: ‘Clever people can be very stupid. There are people with top degrees who haven’t had a single thought since they left college.’

Nigel Dempster: ‘It gives people a sort of comfort to know that the private lives of the rich and powerful are falling apart.’

Yehudi Menuhin: ‘I begrudge time spent that is not invested — just as some people feel about money.’

Attallah likes to probe his interviewees on the matter of their approaching death. On this subject, I’ll bear the late Duke of Devonshire’s self-deprecating comment in mind: ‘I can’t believe in another world, although I shall certainly go to hell if there is one.’ “

The book is published by Quartet Books  at £30, 823pp.

JACK SPRAT NOW EATS HIS FAT.

Who would have thought that today poor children are fatter than well-to-do kids? Apparently it is now an acknowledged fact that because of the rise of cheap junk food and sedentary lifestyles, the trend has been turned on its head a study has found. For years rich parents had portly children, while those growing up poor were much thinner.

But in the decades since the Second World War, disadvantaged children have become more likely than their richer peers to be overweight or obese. A study by University College, London, tracked more than 56,000 children born in England, Scotland and Wales in 1946, 1958, 1970 and 2001, and looked at how the height and weight of children and teenagers changed between the post war years and 2016. The participants’ socioeconomic status was determined by using what their fathers did for a living. The researchers found that while children with poorer backgrounds used to be shorter, they have narrowed the gap thanks to the easy availability and affordability of food. However their unhealthier lifestyles have seen their body mass index (BMI) score increase.

Lead author Dr David Bann blamed the considerable changes to diet and physical activity levels since the post-war years, adding that the study showed previous policies to reduce childhood obesity have not worked. ‘Without effective interventions, childhood BMI inequalities are likely to widen further throughout adulthood, leading to decades of adverse health and economic consequences,’ he said. ‘Bold action is needed such as creating further incentives for food manufacturers to reduce sugar and fat content in food and drink, reduce the advertising of unhealthy food to children and families and incentivize the sale of healthier alternatives.’

In the post-war years, poorer 11-year-olds were an average of 4.4lbs (2 kilograms) lighter than their wealthy peers, while poor children born most recently weighed 4.6 lbs. (2.1 kilograms) more than those who are better off. The weight difference increased with age, according to the study, published in the Lancet Public Health Journal.

It found the poorest children still tend to be shorter, but the difference has narrowed in 7-year-olds from 3.9 centimetres in 1946 to 1.2 centimetres in 2001. A third of children in the UK are overweight or obese by age 11, and the rates are creeping up despite government vows to tackle the crisis. The researchers warn that without drastic action to curb sugar and fat content in food, the widening gap will only get worse.

Dan Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said: ‘The study shows the least advantaged were adopting the least healthy lifestyles.’ He added: ‘The end of rationing – and simply more food – enabled the poorest substantially to catch up in height. The downside is that their staple diet has become progressively worse. The researchers are quite correct to call for a sea change if further obesity is to be avoided in depressed areas.’

Obesity in Britain is becoming a real problem. Everywhere you go you see a large percentage of far-too-fat men and women looking rather unattractive and off-putting.

Riad Nourallah and His Evocation of Gibran

I was told of the death of Riad Nourallah, a most gentle and accomplished academic, poet and writer, just a few days ago. He was an extraordinary scholar and visionary in so much of his writing. Quartet was privileged to publish two of his works: a novel, King, and what I consider an exceptional piece of imaginative writing that created the possible responses of Almustafa, the hero of Gibran’s The Prophet, facing his own death, but answering the questions put to him by the people of ‘Orphalese’ – a metaphor for America, a country Riad knew well.

‘Strive, rather, for the quality of your life instead of its length and for its fellowships instead of its conquests. For a brief life, and Life is never brief, that has merit in it is better than a long one without benefit to one’s soul or to others. And a man carrying the weight but not the wisdom of years will plead to be delivered of his freight.

Full of insight, empathy and comfort, Riad’s soaring poetic and elegant prose is perfectly completed by the original drawings of Clare Allen. As a remembrance of a remarkable man, it remains an ideal testament to his gentle, life-enhancing talents.

It’s not the first time I’ve recounted the glories of Riad’s writing on my blog: The first time was on December 6 2013, when I wrote:

Riad Nourallah is a brilliant academic. He’s the Director of Research at the London Academy of Diplomacy, University of East Anglia. He has an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut and a PhD from Cambridge University. I first met him about four years ago and since that most promising encounter Quartet published two of his books. The first was The Death of Almustafa, where the hero of Gibran’s The Prophet lives again.

In a dramatic and rich narrative, Almustafa faces up to his mortality and to questions on life and death put to him by the people of Orphalese, a metaphor for America. In the course of this great challenge, Almustafa is buffeted by memories of his past and torn between his own fear of death and his undying faith in the resilience and endurance of life. His responses celebrate life and art in their infinite manifestations, offering a message of courage and hope. Daring and thoughtful, the book serves as an eternal and poetic testament to Almustafa’s universal and practical wisdom.

Since Gibran has always been my unparalleled hero, I felt the book more than paid credit to the memories and genius of the man who is worshipped throughout the cultural world for his wisdom and deep perceptions of human frailties in a light and dimension seldom perceived by others.

Although the book was hardly reviewed at the time of its publication in 2010, I believe that its full worth and impact, as with other great books, will in generations to come gain its true acknowledgement as a work of great creativity to which Gibran himself, were he living, would no doubt give it his seal of approval. If you happen to be a Gibran disciple, then Nourallah’s book is a masterful study you can ill afford to ignore.

And again on September 10 2014, I wrote:

One of my main objectives in becoming a publisher was to publish books of Middle Eastern interest, which we did and continue to do comprehensively, but also to promote Arab culture that had been so long ignored in the West.

Historically the Arabs of ancient times contributed to the fields of science, medicine, mathematics and the arts. The eclipse of their contribution was largely due to the colonising powers, which for centuries suppressed knowledge of their cultural evolution and almost destroyed the resulting heritage. Tribal strife was another key factor, impeding progress and diverting attention to more mundane pursuits which stifled learning and higher ideals. There remained, however, a rich crop of emerging writers whose work deserved recognition in the West, and especially in the English-speaking world.

I was determined to do my part in having the output translated into English to stand alongside Quartet’s already well-regarded international list, made up of sometimes obscure or newly discovered talent together with established writers. Although, from the commercial perspective, it is often unrealistic to expect good financial returns in the short term, the inclusion of books emanating from or relating to the Middle East has enabled Quartet to extend its frontiers to a readership in areas hitherto unknown to it.

Leaving politics on one side, our Arab contribution in fiction is substantial. A recent example is King by Riad Nourallah, which we published a few months back. A prince in pre-Islamic Arabia must leave his carefree life to avenge the murder of his father by a rival Arab tribe allied to Persia. Betrayed from within and without, he travels to Constantinople, the ‘New Rome’, where, at the imperial court of Justinian and Theodora, he pleads for political and military support… Presenting a wide spectrum of settings and characters, this epic novel addresses issues like war and peace, tyranny and freedom, and the clash and reconciliation of cultures and faiths; but it is also a very bold and uninhibited celebration of life and the joys and challenges of the physical world and human relationships.

Riad Nourallah’s academic diversity is outstanding. His book, The Death of Almustafa, where the hero of Gibran’s The Prophet lives again – also published by Quartet Books in 2010 – was a rich and moving allegory on modern Western values seeking to compromise more ancient traditions.

Riad is Director of Research at the London Academy of Diplomacy, University of East Anglia. He has an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has taught at the American University of Beirut and the universities of Cambridge, Salford, the United Arab Emirates, Durham, and Westminster. Impeccable credentials!

I urge anybody who cares for literature to buy a copy of both. You won’t be disappointed. On the contrary, you’ll be enthralled to have had an intimate peep into one of the world’s great civilisations, and also be a party to one of the most influential philosophers of modern times, Khalil Gibran.

 

 

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Both books are still in print and copies are available from our website.