In a few days’ time Quartet publish a blockbuster anthology, NO LONGER WITH US Encounters with Naim Attallah: 50 interviews that I conducted with the great and the not so good during the last years of the 1990s. Running to nearly 900 pages, I am startled to re-discover just how many legendary and iconic men and women I had the privilege to talk with and record their thoughts for posterity. It’s worth a brief memoir of the book’s history.
In October 1989 Quartet announced a new book, Singular Encounters, to be published in the autumn of 1990. The subject was to be about men and would consist of an exhaustive study of twenty-five of them. The interviews, designed to unlock the subjects’ innermost secrets, would cover their private and professional lives, their ambitions and aspirations, and would delve into areas that carried the warning: ‘proceed at your own risk’. From the start I saw the book as a highly ambitious project, one that was bound to determine my future as an interviewer. The men I was seeking to engage were leaders in their respective fields and were unlikely to make any concessions to the fact that I was a novice in this journalistic medium. ‘It’s not going to be yet another book of interviews,’ I told the Evening Standard firmly. ‘I’m doing it for the challenge. My reputation as a writer will rise or fall on the book.’
My first sortie into the world of interviewing had been the collection Women, published in October 1987. That book was comparatively simple. My natural affinity with women had been an immeasurable help. I could not as yet advance the claim to have a similar affinity with men. Whether or not the right empathy was there would only emerge with time. Moreover, where the women’s book had been, broadly speaking, a compendium of their views on subjects affecting women in general, the men’s book would aim to present an individual in-depth study of each participant. As such it needed more background research and a more focused concentration during the interviews. The difficulties were exacerbated by the slating Women had received at the hands of a large majority of critics and commentators. The general tone had been to hold up to ridicule the two hundred and eighty-nine women who had accepted the invitation to appear in its pages. I was anxious that this might now become a discouraging factor, deterring some men from agreeing to a serious encounter with me. Fortunately my fears turned out to be without foundation and most of the men I approached were happy to oblige. Throughout my adult life I had always loved the notion of discourse, especially when the other person involved was either a highly endowed magnate or one whose rise to fame made him intolerably self- involved and rather irritably pompous. My memory of some of the interviews, chosen at random, may show what I mean.
One reluctant target was Mark Birley of Harry’s Bar and Annabel’s. He procrastinated but in the end agreed to be a victim. Until then he had always refused to submit to any press coverage and his inclusion in the book was a bit of a coup. However, it was a chance I almost missed. On the appointed day I was struck down with flu. If I had cancelled he would no doubt have jumped at the excuse not to reconvene the session at another time. To ensure this could not happen, I rose from my sickbed suffering from a fevered, aching body, swallowed two codeine tablets and phoned Mark’s secretary to confirm I would be arriving for our appointment. To my astonishment, as if by a conjunction of fate, she told me Mark had the flu as well but would be willing to do the interview at home if I was happy to make the effort. We ended up sipping champagne together in a state of near delirium and conducting a serious conversation in a codeine-induced haze. The unusual encounter marked the beginning of a close and remarkable friendship that remained strong over the years.
Lord Goodman raised a stumbling block of a different order. I saw him over a lavish breakfast at his London flat, initially to be assessed for my suitability to be an interviewer of this giant among men. I outlined the concept of the book for him and mentioned several people who had agreed to participate, including Lord Alexander QC and Lord Rees-Mogg. Evidently I passed muster because a month later I conducted the interview itself. Then, a few days later, a letter arrived from Lord Goodman withdrawing his permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams would be appearing in the same volume: ‘It was inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to have withheld the fact that Mr Ingrams is to be included in the book.’ I replied with a soothing letter, reminding him of his avowed opposition to censorship and questioning the wisdom of bowing out in vexation. The strategy worked, though his reply was designed to put me in my place: ‘In view of your pathetic plea, I am prepared, albeit reluctantly, to allow the interview to appear.’ I heaved a sigh of relief. Lord Goodman, a staunch defender of the cause of the arts, commanded great respect as a legal adviser to both political wings and the establishment itself. He knew nearly everyone in British public life and had been called upon to advise virtually every great national institution. Indeed, he came close to being a national institution himself.
Harold Acton made a sharp contrast: though he had the reputation befitting a grand aesthete, I found him easy-going and charm itself. Our interview took place in Florence over dinner at his home, La Pietra, a Renaissance villa that was like a domestic museum full of countless objets d’art and priceless paintings collected by his family over the years. I had visited him there many times, mostly for tea or dinner, when he would engage in affectionate gossip about his great friend Tony Lambton, or regale me with the latest scandals making the rounds in the small circle of Florentine society, taking especial delight in any sexual peccadilloes. He considered me an amusing dinner companion – a welcome change from certain other guests, who tended to be academic and whom he labelled stuffy and boring. He often cancelled a dinner date with them in preference for spending an evening of banter with me. As a student at Oxford, Harold had been well known for flouting convention and mixing in male undergraduate circles where bisexuality was in vogue. His close friends included Auberon Waugh’s father, Evelyn, who reputedly used him as a model for some of the more outrageous characters in his novels. I used to tease Harold about girls and enquire if he had ever slept with one. He would put on a show of being greatly shocked at this sudden intrusion into his private life before rolling his eyes and smiling an enigmatic smile. Then he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. This only encouraged me to urge him on. Harold entertained well, but he had one curious phobia about electricity consumption. When I needed to visit the cloakroom he would escort me to switch on the light and linger in the vicinity to make sure it was switched off again after I emerged. It was part of his economy drive to maintain his lifestyle without compromising it with waste. Or that was how he explained it.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the world-renowned economist, was a difficult proposition: he was imperious and patronizing. From the outset he tried to dwarf me by orchestrating every aspect of our conversation, refusing to give me a straight answer when he felt a question might compromise him. Instead he would skirt around it and avoid tackling its essence; or refrain from being specific when challenged. Whenever I tried to insist on a proper response to a question, he brushed it aside with a curt dismissal: ‘Move on to the next question.’ The tone in his voice made it clear he meant what he said and I knew that, if I stood my ground, I would soon be shown the door. Since he was a name to be reckoned with, I swallowed my pride and moved on under his overbearing direction. Eating humble pie was better than having no portion of pie at all. He was a man totally secure in his self-confidence and impressively grand in his immense knowledge. The experience of meeting him was worth it for the painful lesson it gave me in self-control.
My interview with Conor Cruise O’Brien was very heated at times and ended with O’Brien being less than happy with the outcome. In some ways I think this interview was my fiercest, especially when I asked him how he reacted to the accusation made by many people that he was ‘a British stooge’ and when I queried his refusal to be less biased about Israel, his fury was obvious.
Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the ultra-orthodox Catholic Society priest who resided, till his death a few months after I interviewed him, at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, was for decades a chaplain at Cambridge. He lived in grand style and entertained his guests for dinner at the club with healthy measures of good wine, obviously not believing that abstinence from culinary pleasures was needed to ensure an easy passage to heaven. For the interview, I met him for dinner and then retired with him to a quiet corner to conduct it. He certainly had a rare eloquence and gave the impression of a single-minded individual who was not afraid to court controversy, especially when it came to his views on women. Tackled directly on the subject, he swiftly emerged as a woman-hater extraordinaire, nostalgic for the days when universities and other institutions were strictly male preserves.
I particularly wanted to interview John Updike. He was the American writer of his generation with the most distinguished and prolific output, who had dissected the suburban sexual mores of small-town America. The snag was that he then rarely gave interviews. As André Deutsch was his publisher in Britain, I asked him if he thought he could persuade Updike to meet me. André said he would do what he could but could promise nothing. Eventually he came back and said Updike would be willing to see me in Boston, but had stipulated that the interview must be restricted to forty-five minutes. I naturally gibbed at this impossibly meagre concession, but André said well, it was either that or nothing. I flew to Boston specially and Updike came to my hotel room as arranged. Once he got going, our conversation went on for almost two hours. In his own memoirs he had described himself as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. This certainly did not really match my perception of him.
I was especially pleased with Robert Kee’s review for the Literary Review, starting it off by observing that if you were watching a brilliant conjurer it was the trick you noticed rather than the man’s personality, wondering only afterwards how the trick was done. ‘So it is with Naim Attallah, a magician interviewer of the highest order … Only an interviewer of quality could get, as Attallah does, a nun, a consecrated virgin as the technical term goes, to say: “I don’t actually believe the state of the hymen has very much to do with the holiness of the person; it’s just a fact like whether you have all your teeth,” or bring someone once described as the cleverest man in the world to say: “I do not believe in the unconscious.” . . . Attallah has a guileless way of asking questions. Seldom for him “with due respect”, etc.’
I was most happy with his comments of my interview – the longest in the book – with Lord Healey, who had been interviewed many times before and was known as an ‘old bruiser’:
Even here the charge of overfamiliarity was avoided by the interviewer’s freshness of approach, his use not just of intelligence, knowledge and energy, but his ability to make people actually enjoy answering his questions, which leads to an agreeable surprise or two. Lord Healey . . . is happy to proclaim in one breath the interesting news that he has more and more in common with Wordsworth and in the next denounce himself as a ‘clapped-out old fart’. He has never seemed less clapped-out.
Looking back, I am amazed at the variety, diversity and differences in all these interviews. I am surprised, even happy, that most of them still contain much that is relevant today. It is in that spirit that I offer them again, in part to celebrate the lives of some remarkable people but to also allow a new generation to discover thoughts and observations which still help all the face the problems ahead.
With an Introduction by Richard Ingrams, No Longer With Us is too big for the Christmas stocking but is a hugely solid and satisfactory present for anyone of a certain age or knowledge of the most interesting movers and shakers of our times. As the jacket proclaims: ‘The fifty interviews, reprinted in their entirety, all display the wit, wisdom and life experience of a remarkable range of unforgettable and now legendary personalities. The shocking reality is that so many read as if conducted only yesterday.’