This week’s review in the Times Literary Supplement of A Scribbler in Soho reminded me of the time Bron Waugh approached Hugh Trevor Roper to try to persuade him to do a review of my fourth collection of interviews, More of a Certain Age, for the Literary Review. ‘How can I possibly resist so civil a request?’ the distinguished historian responded. ‘Quite frankly I would have preferred not be asked – simply because I am so overburdened at present, and doubt if I would do it well (would I know the persons interviewed?). But I respect Naim Attallah as an interviewer and I am sure that the book deserves a good review. So between my respect for him and the irresistible courtesy of your letter, I would do my best – if you can’t find, as I rather hope you can, a more suitable reviewer.
The result outstripped all expectations and is reprinted in full below:
Who Is This Subtle Man Who Asks the Questions?
If you are to be interviewed by Mr Naim Attallah, do not suppose that you will get off with easy answers, for he comes well briefed and will press you hard. ‘You are very searching in your questions,’ exclaims the poetess Kathleen Raine. ‘You are going too deeply into my life,’ protests the Duke of Devonshire; and Sir Laurens van der Post draws the line when pressed to discuss his relations with the Prince of Wales and Lady Thatcher. But on the whole the patients submit to this tactful psychoanalyst. Indeed, they are stimulated. ‘This has been such a good interview that it’s made me think very deeply,’ says John Mortimer, who has had to face the unresolved contradictions of his own psyche. ‘It’s terribly interesting being interviewed by you,’ says Tony Benn, who is so happily constituted that every question merely confirms his own solid convictions.
Mr Benn does bang on a bit, on his ‘stiletto principle’ (the stiletto being the heel on the floor, not the knife in the back). ‘If you really do press very hard on something, you can win, just as a woman with a high-heeled shoe can go through a parquet floor.’ Socialism – real socialism, not the ‘milk-and-water liberalism’ of the Social Democrats – comes to him straight from ‘the Book of Genesis and the New Testament’. So it is absolute Truth, just as Thatcherism is ‘absolute Evil’. After this uncompromising homily, the amiable epicureanism of the Duke of Devonshire comes as rather a relief. Having genially allowed that the 99 per cent of the public who regard dukes as freaks are probably right, and that his own political career was due to ‘gross nepotism’, he admits that his idea of heaven, now that he has passed the stage of ‘casinos, fast women, and God knows what’, apart from being at Chatsworth, is to sit in the hall of Brooks’s ‘having China tea’.
To meet Mr Benn on his own terms we must look for more forceful characters. Lord Amery, an equally unbending, though less ideological opponent, does not give much away – indeed he thinks we have already given away too much; we could and should have kept the old empire going – and here is Lord Hartwell, who also does not give an inch, though he gave away the Daily Telegraph in a fit of absence of mind. His tones are clipped, his judgements summary. Why does he think that Sir Peregrine Worsthorne ‘couldn’t edit a school magazine, let alone a national newspaper’? ‘My experience of him,’ he replies. ‘I use my judgement.’ And what of Rupert Murdoch? ‘He’s become purely a financier. He’s very good at tabloids . . . ’
These patients are all much of an age – a high age – and so the war and, to those who knew him, Churchill loom large in their memories and rationalizations. Particularly of course to Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames. Others had brief but memorable contact with the great man. Sir Bernard Lovell, afterwards Astronomer Royal, was ordered by Churchill to develop the new device H2S, thanks to which bomber pilots could see what lay below them, even in the dark and through cloud, and so detect submarines surfacing at night. Now Sir Bernard looks back on the experience ‘almost as if disembodied’, so remote it seems, and faces the moral questions which linger on. It was chilling, he says, to see the havoc wreaked on Hamburg and other German cities by that device, and yet did not that same device, by defeating the submarine menace, turn the tide of war? It ‘saved us from starvation’ and made the landings in Normandy possible. So narrow was the margin of victory, so thin the dividing line between good and evil in science.
Sir Bernard is a thinking scientist. He ranges over the social and moral problems raised by science: the social conditions of research, the moral problems of its results. To me, this is the most impressive of all these interviews. The most moving is that of Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement, which enables the terminally ill not merely, she insists, to die with dignity, but to live with dignity till they die: a saint with the engaging human quality of always falling in love with Poles. Why so? asks Mr Attallah. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ she replies. ‘It just happens.’ This endears her to me. I love Poles.
There are also men – or more often women – of letters: here is Lady Longford, brimful of good sense. I am sorry that she has changed her view that Father D’Arcy was Mephistopheles and thinks that Koo Stark would have made a much better Duchess of York than Fergie. Marjorie Proops, doyenne of agony aunts, refused to believe any ill of Robert Maxwell, who made her a director of the Daily Mirror and got her to sign sheaves of papers unseen. She insists that she was in good company: everyone she knew agreed. She must have lived exclusively among bankers. John Mortimer is always exhilarating, P. D. James sensible. All these bare their souls to so perceptive and sympathetic an inquisitor.
But Patricia Highsmith stands firm. As an earlier interviewer wrote, ‘Her manner precludes intrusive questioning.’ Mr Attallah fares no better. Does she regret being an only child? ‘No, I never missed having brothers and sisters.’ Has she ever wanted children? ‘No. Absolutely no.’ Has she ever regretted not marrying? ‘No.’ Is she unhappy? Not at all. ‘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.”’
Lord Amery, Lord Hartwell and Miss Highsmith adopt variants of the Maginot line of defence. Lord Wyatt prefers the counter-attack. The subject is his most popular pronouncements in the News of the World, delivered as ‘The Voice of Reason’. Is not that title, in the circumstances, rather presumptuous? ‘Not at all,’ replies the oracular voice. ‘Do you read my column?’ ‘Sometimes,’ answers the questioner, their roles suddenly reversed. ‘Well, you obviously don’t read it enough, so you don’t know what you’re talking about. I think very much as ordinary people do.’ QED.
In the end, one of the most interesting persons in these discussions is Mr Attallah. Someone (preferably a little more subtle than Lord Wyatt) should interview him.