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.

WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK

Did you know that we toil one day longer than the Germans do? Research has revealed that Britain has the worst work/life balance in Western Europe. A study has found that the UK has the highest proportion of employees working more than 50 hours a week. It means Britons spend 225 more hours at work than their German counterparts every year – giving them less time to relax and unwind.

Scandinavian countries topped the list of the world’s industrialised nations with the best work/life balance, while the United States, Japan and South Korea are languishing at the bottom. The work/life index was compiled by on-line retailer Mahabis, whose founder Ankur Shah said: ‘The stresses and strains of modern life have seen peoples’ work/life balance suffer and this is particularly true in the UK. A healthy, happy workforce can drive productivity and creativity, but these figures reveal that Brits are among the most guilty of committing more time to their jobs, rather than finding time to switch off. We can all do more to recognise the importance of downtime, which can benefit individuals, businesses and society as a whole.’

Mahabis ranked 20 industrialised nations, 7 individual measures, then combined them into an overall rank. Britain came 16th, beating only Greece, the US, Japan and South Korea. Denmark topped the list followed by Norway and Sweden. More than 1 in 8 Britons (12.7%) work more than 50 hours a week – a figure exceeded only by Japan and South Korea. In France the figure is just 7.76% and in Germany 4.6%. Only 0.45% of workers in the Netherlands and 1.1% of workers in Sweden work more than 50 hours.

The average UK employee worked 1,681 hours in 2017 – far more than Germans (1356) or Danes (1408). The work/life index takes into account a range of factors which contribute to a healthy balance including the average number of hours worked each year, statuary leave available to employees, time dedicated to leisure and personal care, and overall happiness.

The only indicator where the UK performed highly is in paid maternity time leave. The 39 weeks in Britain are fewer than in Norway but well ahead of the 14 weeks in Germany and the 16 in France.There are only 20 paid statuary days off a year in the UK compared to 25 in France, and 30 in Spain. And Britain has only 8 days of holidays. Only one country, Switzerland, has fewer with 7. However, workers in the US do not have a single day of statuary paid leave.

Mahabis based its ranking on figures collated by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Labour Organization. The issue of work/life balance came to the fore at the TUC conference this year. Labour said it would look into introducing a statuary 4-day week.

Although in general, long working hours do not necessarily increase productivity, I personally prefer the notion of being occupied most of the day. With me it has always been an addiction which I believe has kept me alive and in reasonably good nick.

THE BEST OF GIFTS FOR THE HOLIDAY AHEAD…

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.

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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.’

RIP VAN WINKLE HAD IT EASY

How conflicting some studies, embarked upon by scientists, turn out to be. The latest example is apropos Neanderthals, who in previous studies have been depicted as slouched, ape-like cavemen – but it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. A study of the most complete skeleton unearthed to date shows that they were more upright than humans and had stronger lungs than even we enjoy today. It adds to growing evidence that the mysterious human species were far more sophisticated than previously assumed.

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A team, led by Dr Asler Gomez Olivencia of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, used CT scans of the fossilised skeleton – a 60,000 year old male dubbed ‘Kebra2’ – to create a model of his chest. He said: ‘The shape of the thorax, which includes the rib cage and upper spine and formed a cavity to house the heart and lungs, was key to understanding how Neanderthals moved because it informed us about their breathing and balance. The spine is located more inside the thorax which provides more stability,’ said Dr Gomez Olivencia. ‘Also, the thorax is wider in its lower parts. This shape suggests a larger diaphragm and thus greater lung capacity.’

Fellow researcher, Dr Elia Been of Ono Academy College, Israel, said: ‘The wide lower thorax and the horizontal orientation of the ribs suggest they relied more on their diaphragm for breathing. Modern humans, on the other hand, rely both on the diaphragm and on the expansion of the rib cage for breathing.’

The team say the study – published in the online journal Nature Communications – redraws the hunched brutish and ape-like caveman as a straighter-backed version of the modern human, with more powerful lungs. Neanderthals became extinct 40,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown they had brains as large as ours and may well have interbred with early humans.

How very exciting….