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Last evening saw the launch of Dynasty by Christina Oxenberg at Daunt Books in Fulham Road, London.

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Here is the substance of my speech to celebrate the occasion.

Christina Oxenberg, whose book Dynasty we are proud to launch this evening, means a great deal to me.

In the mid-1980s having purchased an apartment in New York I was commuting from London on a monthly basis, acquainting myself with the great city. One of my first friends was Christina to whom I owe a great deal. She introduced me to her distinguished entourage and multiple acquaintances who made my stay in the Big Apple over the years more pleasant than I could ever have imagined. Her help and company formed the basis of my first book, Women, which Quartet published in 1987.

Christina also became a close friend of my late wife Maria and  we both followed her ascendancy in every sphere she touched including the publication in the UK of her two books, Royal Blue and Taxi which Quartet had the privilege of publishing. So the occasion tonight to honour Christina is one that I shall always remember with the sort of nostalgia one rarely encounters.

Like many others – including the actor Richard Burton – I adored Christina’s mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, whose magic presence was uniquely irresistible. On many occasions I accompanied her to receptions, which made me feel grand but undeservingly so and nevertheless extremely flattered. Naturally I understand Christina’s great attachment to this most alluring princess who happened to be her mother.

In 2014 Christina visited Serbia for the first time on the trail of her family history. What she discovered was not only the astonishing story of her roots – a descendant of the blood-soaked Karageorgevic dynasty that rose from swineherds to kings in the early nineteenth century – but also the hair-raising history of Europe and its royals. From the ascendancy of the revolutionary warrior Karageorge, who overthrew the Ottoman Empire, to the horrors of World War II, the cruel exile of Serbia’s monarchy and its long journey home, the wavering fortunes of Oxenberg’s ancestors are inextricably bound to the cultural, historical and imaginative make-up of Serbia and Eastern Europe at large.

Part memoir, part royal history – this is the intimate and passionate true story of Christina’s remarkable and illustrious Serbian heritage. Dynasty is an engrossing and at times controversial royal saga, told by a reluctant gracious princess.

Christina is worth her weight in gold and her friendship surpasses anything we are likely to encounter in a world which has gone topsy-turvy. Thank Heavens she remains a shining light for everyone who happens to know her. Christina has certainly produced a work of great quality with Dynasty so please reward her effort by purchasing as many copies of the book as you can afford and spread the good word wherever you can. She is truly our princess. I salute her and ask our enthusiastic audience to do the same. Thank you.

 

No Longer With Us

SIR HAROLD ACTON

Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar, and aesthete. He wrote fiction, biography and autobiography. During his stay in China, he studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry, some of which, he translated.
He was born near Florence, Italy, of a prominent Anglo-Italian family. At Eton College, he was a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, before going up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. There he co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom, and mixed with many intellectual and literary figures of the age, including Evelyn Waugh, who based the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited partly on him.
Between the wars, Acton lived in Paris, London, and Florence, proving most successful as a historian, his magnum opus being a 3-volume study of the Medicis and the Bourbons. After serving as an RAF liaison officer in the Mediterranean, he returned to Florence, restoring his childhood home La Pietra to its earlier glory. Acton was knighted in 1974, and died in Florence, leaving La Pietra to New York University.

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Here is the substance of an interview I did with him in 1990.

On the subject of beauty, you have written that those who philosophize most loudly and persistently about it seldom have intrinsic taste. Is beauty purely subjective?
I fear it is. In my case I’ve been privileged: born in Florence and surrounded by beautiful things with a father who was a painter and collector and whose friends were art historians, art critics. I think of Offner, whose centenary will be celebrated very soon, and Berenson, and Herbert Horne, who bequeathed his collection to Florence – his place is now a museum – and Stibbert, another Englishman who lived not far from where I do. All these men were collectors and I imbibed something of that atmosphere when I was young. There were many beautiful villas, all full of treasures. The British community was then predominant, though it’s been ebbing now for some time, ever since just before the last war. People gave up their houses and went back to live in England. I suppose that really they were scared away by fascism. Life was made very unpleasant for them by the young blackshirts, you know, so they started to retreat, to leave their lovely houses in the Italian countryside. One or two, like Lord Lambton, have in more recent times bought properties here in beautiful situations near Siena, Signa, Pistoia, all around here. In fact some parts of Tuscany are today quite Anglicized, you might say. Young English historians and art critics like John Flemming and Hugh Honour live near Luca and write well on Italian painting, and those are the few who remain. Formerly every other Englishman here was an art historian or collector or painter. It was like a kitchen of the arts.

You have said that your most valued experiences have been aesthetic. Could you elaborate?
A single visit to Florence can answer that question, though Florence is suffering from new horrors. There is an appalling lack of architectural taste today. It’s rather sad, this degradation of architecture in Italy which I don’t think applies in the same way in England. Incidentally, where England is concerned, I do think Prince Charles is very enlightened. Aren’t we lucky to have a prince who takes an interest in architecture. It’s unique. After all, architecture in England has always been very important, but lately people have closed their eyes to the horrors that have arisen in London. Prince Charles is absolutely right to point it out. Of course, good architects do exist, but Prince Charles is in revolt against the vulgarization of everything. He’s a man of taste. I don’t think the Duke of Edinburgh cares two hoots. As for the Queen, she has other things to think of.

Are there any objective, or at least non-subjective, criteria for beauty?
Yes, I think there are. The French, after all, have Versailles, and they have so many marvellous buildings which are perfectly proportioned in every sort of style. They have the classical tradition of remarkable taste, but unfortunately, as soon as the petite bourgeoisie takes over, then it becomes grotesque. French taste has gone down the drain. Even their painting is now very poor. Only think what they used to be in the eighteenth century. The whole question of taste is very difficult because taste is so personal, so private a thing, but I think that a person who has a certain classical education is entitled to some say in matters of taste. Classical education is the background. I’m afraid there is also natural bad taste, and bad taste is more general than good taste. When I see the garish, the obvious, the bright, the sexy, all of that appals, alas.

In your memoirs you say: ‘In spirit I remain a nomad, a restless and nostalgic ex-pat’. Is this still true?
The older I get the more true it seems. With age I feel that I am more devoted to travel in search of art, of international art, not limited to English or Italian. I’ve always been drawn, for instance, to Chinese art. I also like their drama, which I have translated with L. C. Arlington, and I have translated popular Chinese plays which are immensely artistic and beautiful in performance. Unfortunately China today is too different from the China I knew in the seven happy years I lived in Pecking. I have no particular yearning to return under the present regime, but all the same I’m haunted by the happy years I lived there just before the war. All the accounts that friends bring me of China today are rather depressing, but I love the country and I like the people. Wherever I went, whether in the North, to Honan and Hoonan, or all the way south to Hong Kong, I always got on well with the Chinese. I feel homesick sometimes for China, but I know it’s been transformed under Mao Tsetung. How could it be otherwise? When I was there, there were still the remains of the Imperial Manchu dynasty. I met several who were talented painters, Prince P’u Ju P’u Hsin-yu, for instance, a cousin of the ex-emperor, who was a very talented poet and painter and who I think eventually fled to Japan. I don’t expect he’s alive now, but I knew him well and his place was not far from where I had a house in Kung Hsien Hutung. He painted a portrait of me, which I haven’t got because I left everything behind in Pecking, expecting to go back after the war, but of course the revolution changed all those expectations. Instead I returned to Italy where I was born, and here I have remained: all my eggs in one basket.

You wrote about your early years: ‘I cannot remember thinking of myself as a child for I was as embarrassed by children then as I am now and whined when I was referred to as one of their species.‘
I’ve always been uncomfortable with children and they’re uncomfortable with me. I don’t know why, but I never felt at ease with children, and, of course, if you’re surrounded by works of art then you’re always terrified that they’re going to break them; and those children that I know will immediately go towards a little statue and crash!, within a moment the statue is down in smithereens on the floor. Children are very destructive, particularly English children, though I don’t think I was ever destructive as a child. I was always rather careful. I had a natural instinctive love of art and so was always extremely careful of everything in this house. I never played with the statues or the paintings I admired. Quite early in life I became attached to Italian art. I used to go to the galleries, which children would not normally do nowadays, and would feast in the Pitti and the Uffizi and the different churches of Florence. I don’t know that I could say I had a very happy nature. I enjoyed Florence, I enjoyed Italy, so when I was at school in England I was very homesick for Italy. I never settled happily in the English atmosphere. Not when I was a child, at any rate. Oxford was another matter. Those days in England were very exciting. There were the three Sitwells, for instance, all of them publishing, and reciting their poems to music composed by William Walton. They, too, had a place here in Florence at Motegufoni, a huge palatial structure about fifteen miles on the way to Siena. It was bought by Sir George Sitwell, the father, and there they stayed for many years. Sir Osbert Sitwell lived there after Sir George’s death, and continued to write, and I think his work, which is detailed and beautifully written, will be more appreciated in the future for the history of our time and the figures he knew in the arts. Sacheverell Sitwell, too, woke people up to appreciate the baroque and his book on Italian Baroque is still excellent. Of course, baroque has now come to be generally understood and appreciated, but the Sitwells were voices crying a little in advance of the present success.

Of all the literary people you knew during your Oxford days, you speak with special fondness of Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein.
Both of them in their ways were poets. Edith Sitwell is probably underestimated as a poet today, but she brought new life, new colour into the English language with Façade, set to music so beautifully by Walton. Gertrude Stein was playing pranks with the English language, but as recited by her, her portraits of human beings sounded rather imposing. Anybody who reads them, and reads them in her slow American voice, will see how they were very sharp portrayals of artists and people she knew. She was in Florence at a time when Mabel Dodge lived at the villa Curonia here, and she did a portrait that doesn’t make sense from a logical point of view but which is somehow a creative abstract portrait of Mabel Dodge. I think it is quite extraordinary how she managed it. In terms of abstract language, her portraits of people are really rather good. Nobody else has done it; she’s unique. Her first book, Three Lives, is still a rather remarkable work, not especially exciting but successful as a literary experiment.

You once said, ‘Most novels are confessions in disguise; most “confessions”, like Rousseua’s, are novels in disguise.’ Where did your poetry fit into such a scheme of things? Did you see your early poetry as confessional or were you aware that others might view it as such?
I think all poetry is confessional. It seems to me that the poet unburdens himself of his dreams, of his subconscious, and I’m sure that my poems, which I never look at nowadays, were really subconscious confessions that had to come out in one way or another. Though I’m a Roman Catholic, I don’t think they ever came out in the confessional. They had to come out in more elaborate ways and they came out in verse.

You said of writing that you wanted to pour honey from your hive, but what people wanted was gall and wormwood. Were you ever tempted to compromise?
I was never so tempted. All the poets around me, such as Auden, Spender and others whose names I forget, were left-wingers producing poems of protest. There will always be poems of protest, but poetry should take other forms, should not be limited. Poems of protest have existed since Dante, you might say, but I’m not at all politically minded, and I take the view that politics and poetry do not combine. I suppose Byron with his love of Greece was politically minded, but it is not something you find very often at the heart of the English tradition. Among Italian poets – Leopardi and Carducci- you do, but in English poetry I don’t think it’s ever that important. With the English, in poetry as in painting, it is nature that is all-important. My poetry was just colour and rhythm, and it was joyful, but as I now realize, it had no depth. It was no more than the exuberance of youth, and every young man has a poetic mood. I was just trying to express my joie de vivre, which is nothing to be ashamed of. The older I grow the more I admire the quality in other people.

You once called Cyril Connolly a treacherous Irishman on the grounds that he was a hundred per cent homosexual at school, slept with everyone, then turned against those who remained so.
Well, Connolly was personally antipatico to me. He laid down the law, a little dictator surrounded by yes-sayers, all of whom agreed with him, though it also has to be said that he did a good job editing the magazine Horizon. When we were contemporaries at Eton I used to get very irritated with his dictatorial manner. He was rather a bully, and he was entirely homosexual, then he changed over to the women and never stopped. He discovered the girls rather late in life, and then it was one after another. A treacherous Irishman is what he was, and I didn’t care much for him.

You sometimes make Eton sound a like one of the ‘cities of the plain’.
Oh, no. It was the most innocent place. No cities of the plain there. In fact a sharp eye was kept on the morals of the Etonians by the housemasters, so they could not stray, though I suppose subconsciously there was a good deal of homosexuality.

Your friendship with Evelyn Waugh spanned many years. Did you admire him as a man and writer equally?
I admired his writing far more than I admired his character, but he was a delightful, warm-hearted, hot-tempered personality such as you rarely find today. He was a man of extreme views and a convert to Catholicism, and a passionate convert at that, which is also rather rare nowadays. He was a deeply religious person, but his gifts were not really in the most serious vein. His gifts were humorous and I think his best novels are the least serious. For instance, Decline and Fall, dedicated to myself, is still I think one of the most brilliant of English light novels. He got a little more serious towards the end, and he lost somehow the light touch, so rare in English literature. Not many people have that light touch. Evelyn Waugh was a master of prose as well; he wrote very good English. That’s another thing that is rare nowadays: good, sound, logical English. I wouldn’t say Waugh was depressing as a person. He was rather more depressed than depressing because he saw the way the world was going and it didn’t appeal to him at all. But he had a heart of gold and I was really very fond of him. I was best man at his first wedding, a marriage which went badly, alas. I’m afraid he married a rather superficial lady who flirted with others and he couldn’t stand it. He was very old-fashioned, expected his wife to be loyal and faithful to him. He couldn’t stand the strain of her going off on her own. He was a proud man and he was very loyal as a friend. We stayed friends till the day he died and he’s one of the few friends I’ve never quarrelled with. I’m also a friend of his son Bron. Towards the end of his life, Evelyn became a kind of recluse, except that he loved his family, and loved to be in the company of his devoted wife, surrounded by his children. He didn’t care to join literary societies, but liked to stand on his own. He was independent. There’s too much nowadays of congregating in these literary societies, of people blowing their own trumpets, but Evelyn was dignified about all of that.

It has been said that characters in Brideshead Revisited are based on your own character. Do you find the idea flattering or provoking?
I think it is very flattering, but I don’t recognize any character in Brideshead connected with myself. He’s taken little traits from me in one of the characters, certain physical traits so that people confuse me sometimes with that particular character, but I don’t think it was in his mind. A novelist has to take everything in his experience and use it. That’s why we respond. If we felt a novelist’s work was false, we wouldn’t admire it, unless his fiction were absolutely farcical and fantastic, and Evelyn’s is only farcical up to a certain degree. There is seriousness underlining all his fiction.

Max Beerbohm and Somerset Maugham seem to have belonged in quite separate worlds, but you knew the both. Were they at all alike?
They were not very alike, except that they belonged to the same period in a sense, Beerbohm being very much a figure of the 1890’s, a sort of dandy of that era who survived into the present century. Maugham, too, had all the mannerisms of a man of the nineteenth century: very formal and living in the South of France in sumptuous splendour. He was not a modern; he didn’t really change with the century. He had this stutter, poor man,vwhich only vanished on certain occasions. When he had to speak in public he stopped stammering, but in private life it was embarrassing because he took a long time to come out with any sentence. Pathetic. He used to stay here next to us before he went to the South of France. As for being an admirer of his writing, I would have to answer yes and no. I don’t think he’s a first-rate novelist. Of Human Bondage is a book that will last, and there are a lot of things he wrote that exactly struck the mood of the moment.

Is there any foundation in the rumour of a rift between you and Gore Vidal?
It’s a fabrication. He’s not exactly one of my heroes, far from it, but he is in a way a very amiable young man, though very naïve. He thinks himself sophisticated, but he’s really very simple. If there’s any disagreement, it’s entirely on his side not mine. I live, as you see, in a totally different atmosphere. He was in Rome, I think, for a time, used to turn up here occasionally, but I have very little in common with him. He’s not an aesthete, not by any means. The arts don’t mean much to him. He’s an embryo politician and all his ambitions are towards the Senate in the United States. He’s a fish out of water here in Florence. We have never quarrelled on my side. On his, I do believe he bears me ill-will. I’m very sorry for it because to me he is just like an American sophomore. I can’t take him seriously as a writer.

You have dismissed most English novelists as preachers who mistake their vocation.
Lately they have tended to preach less. I don’t think, for instance, that Somerset Maugham was much of a preacher and the Bloomsbury writers, Virginia Woolf – or even Aldous Huxley – did not preach much. But the Victorians were eminently preachers. If you pick out any Victorian novelist, you find they have a tendency to speak from a pulpit, to address an imaginary public. If I were to have my reading confined to one English novelist I should say Dickens because I think he was a man of overall breadth of view and knowledge of society. Though his language is very dated, it is vey vital English. As you read him you are still living in a sort of Victorian present. Thackery is also remarkable, but I feel he is more of the past. I don’t feel he is as alive as Dickens is today. As for the English being a literary nation, I find the claim exaggerated. I fear they’re not literary. They do not buy literary works, they want something different. Nowadays it’s sex, sex and lively fashion magazines. The stress of modern life drives them to the frivolous by contrast, it seems to me.

On the subject of religion, you write that the Protestant faith has much misery to answer for. Why single out the Protestant faith?
I think it could be said of many religions, but as a Roman Catholic I remain firm in seeing all around me in this country how religion lives among the people and how it is the inspiration, the joy and the philosophy of the Italians that has kept them going for centuries. I feel a stronger Catholic here than anywhere else, though it is always a delight, a joy to me when I got to England to find out that Westminster Cathedral is full. I can’t say I’m deeply religious, but I believe religion is essential to us and that without it we lose our bearings. It is extremely important for us to have a faith if we’re fortunate enough. I cannot imagine being without faith, I cannot imagine the purpose of life in that case. After a good long life, my faith is stronger than ever. My belief is in the Church and in our wonderful Pope. I have the greatest admiration for him. He is a heroic man. I’m very happy to have been with a Polish squadron during the war. They were all deeply religious: heroic boys, but deeply pious. If you went to Mass in Blackpool it was all Poles at that time. They sang beautifully, and in their voices you could hear their faith ringing out. It was quite splendid, an inspiration, and wherever I’ve been – even in India – the Catholics were always far more vocal that the Protestants. I wouldn’t want to make any sort of comparison, but it was a great inspiration. There’s only a one faith for me. It’s in the Church of Rome. Of course the Pope is a traditionalist. The Church is traditional, it has to be. We can’t revolutionize what Our Lord has preached in the past, we can’t change his words. I freely admit, though, that I was saddened by the abandonment of the Tridentine rite. The strength of the Church is in the old Tridentine.

Do you believe in sin?
I believe rather in weakness than in sin, though certain politicians make me believe seriously in sin. If one turns to politics, one has to admit that there are evil people about.

Can you think of any really honest and straightforward politicians?
I remember at Oxford how the young men who were going in for politics and the Union were very shallow, very superficial. They were only ambitious for themselves. I stayed aloof from all those brilliant geniuses who were passing all their exams with top marks, double firsts and all that, then disappearing into the House of Commons. We’ve heard nothing from them since. Those with the biggest reputations at that time have vanished. Roger Hollis is still known, perhaps, though he was a scandalous fellow, a traitor. I also met Guy Burgess, but I prefer to forget him. A boorish sort of fellow, not an intellectual. He was nothing. I don’t know why people talked about him. He had a talent for making noise, that’s all. Speaking of politicians, I did admire Churchill. He was an outstanding person who also wrote well. He was enlightened, the sort of universal man who can be admired anywhere in the world. He was a great draughtsman and he could also paint. Some of his earlier work will endure, I’m sure, but then he became experimental. The desire is always to be young, always to experiment, always just to beget children has been, in my view, a great loss in art. Instead of clinging to his own natural talent for beautiful draughtsmanship and colour, Churchill turned his back on his talent, and, like several other painters today, though they don’t realize it, was led astray by the critics. I think the wish to be modern at all costs, to alarm, to shock, to startle is the trouble, whereas great painters in the past were not thinking about startling anybody, they were just devoted to their vision and to trying to interpret it in a way others could share. I don’t believe anybody can share the vision of Picasso, or even Matisse. The political animal is something very foreign to me, though, because I have lived in a world of aesthetics, of love of the arts, which it seems to me is natural to anybody born in Europe. Although a good many Englishmen born here were not as interested in the arts as you might expect, generally speaking all the English who were here had one foot in the art world.

Did you ever live in Italy under fascism?
The atmosphere was too unpleasant for me, so that was when I went off to China. But whenever I came back in those years I could feel this rather unpleasant atmosphere of coercion, and many of my English friends sympathised with fascism, thinking it very splendid and dramatic. It’s hard to believe now, but they were taken in by the show, by the theatrical element. My parents were here under fascism. I paid them a visit and found the atmosphere very bellicose at that time. It wasn’t something that could be said of the Italians in general, because they were peace-loving and didn’t want war at all, but the people one met – journalists, writers – were all very bellicose and attracted to Nazism. The Germans had tremendous influence. My parents were both in prison for a short time before getting away to Switzerland. Eventually I felt I couldn’t sit there in Pecking any longer, enjoying life while Britain was at war. I had to do my duty in some way and so went back to England and joined the RAF. I didn’t fly because my vision and my age were against me – I was already in my thirties. They took me because of my knowledge of Chinese and things Oriental after living in China for seven years. The war was also by then being fought in the Far East, and so I was sent off there after a period at various air stations to pick up the methods. I was in Intelligence, so called. The people I met were all very brilliant, but I never give those years a thought today. Now that I’m eighty-five years old, it’s strange to think of how I was once restricted to air stations in England as an interrogating Intelligence officer, listening to the crews who had been bombing Germany when they arrived back absolutely worn out from their sorties.

Have you ever been a romantic?
I’ve been an admirer of Schiller, of the romantics, and so on. I think we’ve all gone through a romantic phase, particularly in youth.

Did you ever fall in love?
Oh, yes, I think we all did, but I suppose I haven’t got the depth of character to fall desperately in love, like so many of my friends. No, I never had that. I suppose I must be a cold-blooded fish, really – more mental than physical. Certainly it occurred to me to marry. I was proposed to many times, but I lived in China then and it would have been very inconvenient. I liked to be an independent bachelor in Pecking, having my choice of friends and of girl-friends. I preferred my freedom. I’m happy now. I’m an old bachelor, but I don’t suffer from solitude. I sometimes regret that I never chose such and such a person, but I have many particularly good friends here. I spent a long time with a Chinese woman, which was a very happy time, except when I had to leave, of course, but you couldn’t continue for ever. It was a rewarding relationship. The Chinese have such an exquisite old civilisation and Chinese women have a wonderful instinct for affection. They’re warm hearted, and I love everything about their figures: very graceful and unhairy. I don’t like a lot of hair, so they appealed to me. If I had married I would have married a Chinese. So I was living with a Chinese girl for many years, and happily because I was never disturbed; no scenes, no jealousy, nothing of that sort. They had another tempo. With an Italian woman it would be a series of scenes and life would become impossible. I know, because I have so many Italian friends. I never felt any regret at the lack of an heir. I’m leaving everything to the New York University. I don’t think Oxford would look after it properly, and anyway, they haven’t got the money. I offered it all to Oxford first, but met with such little response that I changed my mind. So everything goes to New York University and they will take the villa over and use it as a centre for Italian studies. My father didn’t like the idea at all. I discussed it with him before he died and he, of course, would have preferred me to marry and have children, but I never had that desire. I never had a feeling for children and family. Even my mother didn’t have much of a feeling of that kind, and I think she agreed with me fundamentally. She always preferred the place to be lived in by people who appreciated the arts.

Do you feel you had to forsake the pleasures of the flesh for the sake of the art, or can the two go together?
They can go together, of course, but the pleasures of the flesh were very small in my case. They are an important part of life, but they didn’t dominate so many people. Talking of Maughan, he was always in the hands of some dreadful creature. Gerald Hackston, for instance, who dominated him, or his wife, whom he hated. In my case I have nothing of that sort, thank God. No hatreds. I feel I have chosen wisely to be my own master and to leave everything to a university that can enjoy and use it. After all, Florence will continue to be the capital of the arts. It’s bound to be. It always has been since the Medici.

Have you ever been attracted to erotic art?
As a juvenile I was rather interested in certain Beardsley drawings and others appealed to me. I still think Beardsley is a very good draughtsman, but on the whole I think that art should rise above the erotic.

How do you see the relationship between art and morality? Presumably the two can never be separated?
Many artists have been considered deeply immoral. Art is to me beyond morality. If you start moralizing then art disappears. It becomes a sort of preaching.

Throughout your memoirs you display an irritation with the contempt of critics, especially for art critics.
I think that many art critics are would-be painters. They are disappointed and frustrated and consequently their frustration is brought out in their criticism of others. That’s my opinion, particularly in England where many of the critics I have known personally have been painters on the sly who have had no success and no chance of success and consequently have been bitter about others. I am afraid it is a weakness of human nature to be like that, but it is a sad thing that most of the critics are failed painters. Literary critics are larger, broader. I’m not capable of judging, for instance, modern poetry, because I’m rather indifferent to what I see in the way of poetry today, but on the whole I consider that our literary critics are excellent. I read the Spectator every week with pleasure for its admirable, clear, well-written criticism. It’s an excellent journal, and the New Statesman and others of high quality compare well with any publication of the past. The late Victorian publications seem rather heavy-going now if we try to look through them, but still they contain very good criticism.

Are scholarly work and critical explanations the most helpful ways of making art available?
No. I don’t think people pay much attention to the critics. The critics don’t possess much weight any longer. In the days of Ruskin, of course, it was quite different.

What about Bernard Shaw?
He was a very loud, able and brilliant critic, but I think he was sometimes deeply inhuman. I met him once at a public meeting. He had a most beautiful voice and great charm of manner, there’s no doubt about it, but I think he was fundamentally a eunuch. I don’t think he had any sex. That’s my own private view. He was married, of course, but I don’t think he was a marrying man. He was all brain and, in spite of the beard, I don’t think he was very virile. At least, that was my own personal impression. Why inhuman? Well, I think that of people entirely given to politics and the stage and boosting themselves. He was a tremendous egocentric, the best propogandist for himself that ever was.

You say of Charles Loeser: ‘He would question every object d’art until it vouchsafed an answer.; What sort of an answer, and in what way does one question an objet d’art? You go on to speak of the way Loeser would interpret a great master’s drawing. What is it to interpret a drawing?
Oh dear, very difficult. Loeser had an impeccable eye. He was one of the first people to collect Cezanne and he used to tell his servants or his ignorant cook to come in, and he would ask them, ‘Do you feel that is a landscape?’ And they’d say, ‘Si, si.’ ‘My cook knows more about it than I do,’ he would say. ‘She has the eye, she is unspoilt, untutored. I am unfortunately a Harvard graduate with too much education to be able to see properly.’ Of course, he was exaggerating, but still, there was a certain amount of truth in it. He was a very original man.
At the beginning of your memoirs you write: ‘Peace and goodwill towards men will only be brought about by individuals like myself.’ Can you elaborate?
It’s a very conceited statement. I’m rather shocked that I ever wrote it. But I think that people like us, who are only interested in culture and history, do perhaps a little more for the general public than is recognized and yet we are dismissed by journalists as decorative people on the fringe. In fact we influence people far more than they’re ready to admit. That’s my opinion.

It sometimes seems that high art must necessarily be a restricted pleasure. Do you think the taste of the connoisseur can ever really coincide with the larger, more democratic taste, if you like?
I can’t coincide, but it’s a guide. The connoisseur must guide taste and most people pay attention to the connoisseur when they know he’s genuine. They may laugh at him to begin with, but they follow. They laughed at Whistler, but his ‘Ten O’Clock Lecture’ is a wonderful piece of prose, quite apart from the fact that the message had a great influence.

What do you think an aesthetic emotion is? Is it really distinguishable form other sorts of feelings?
Oh, yes. It’s the most difficult thing to put into words. Aesthetic emotions require a Walter Pater, who wrote his book on the Renaissance with great difficulty over many years. It was a product of careful thought, and we cannot suddenly express that in a few words. Think of the aesthetic philosophers in Germany and in Italy. They are rather long winded and obscure, and it’s very difficult to tone that down to the level of popular understanding. Very difficult – though I think that the average person confronted with a great statue can tell the difference between that and, say, the sort of abstract stuff that is supposed to be a statue now. I think the average man or woman in England can respond immediately to a genuine work of art, a find Niobe or an Apollo and Marsyas. I think it is extraordinary that the public tolerates the sort of thing that I see very often being put up in London. In my day we’d have tarred and feathered those statues, but they’ve even spread to Italy. It’s a blight.

Some literary artists like Oscar Wilde and T.S Eliot have seemed to allow art to border on the trivial by saying that all art is useless, as Wilde did, or by calling it a superior entertainment, as Eliot did. What are your feelings about this?
I think they’re both very mistaken. I think art is an essential to civilized life, to our private existence. I cannot conceive of an existence without art. But alas, in many places, in industrial cities in the North of England, people manage to live without it very well, but still it’s a severe loss to them. If they had beautiful things to look at, it would inspire them to do even better work. But art in England has always been a small group of people, wealthy, old families with an interest in painting or architecture. It’s never been open to the masses, unfortunately, and we have suffered accordingly.

You quote Andrew Marvell’s lines, ‘My love is of a birth so rare/ As ‘tis for the object strange and high,/It was begotten by Despair/ Upon Impossibility.’ Why did these lines seem to you to explain the otherwise inexplicable?
Marvell was a man of profound vision and of deep spirituality which is rare in the poetry of that period. But it seems to me that these lines are modern and can convey that twilight of the consciousness which is so seldom expressed nowadays.

Over the centuries many hundreds of men and women have devoted their lives to music or painting and dance. Does such a devotion in itself give value to their art?
Certainly. It must give value to their art, if they are devoted in the real, true sense of the word. Pavlova, until she was quite old, was still dancing. I remember seeing her when she was about to retire. She was still the most graceful sylph-like figure one could possibly dream of. She was exquisite, and that’s a triumph of art.

You record in your memoirs the fate of works of art at the hands of the Germans in Florence. You describe, for example, an ‘Adoration of the Magi’ being used as a tablecloth and stabbed with a knife. At the same time you praise the Germans and say that in courage and fortitude they were certainly our peers. Why did they behave so badly, do you think?
Well, unfortunately, that’s a sort of racial thing that they have inherited: the rough, primitive instincts which have been glorified by certain great geniuses like Wagner. Wagner glorifies the coarsest instincts in The Ring. It’s a sign of strength they feel, this great love of their own strength, their own power. It’s quite a good thing in a way from the point of view of art, because that is the way good art is produced, but also, alas, bad art.

Why do you think that art seems not to affect people’s behaviour as one might hope? Both the Germans and the Japanese seem to have been capable of terrible savagery concurrently with an appreciation of the subtlest effects of art.
That’s a very strange point, yes. The Japanese can certainly be split personalities. I’ve never quite understood their Buddhism; it’s not like the Buddhism of the Indians, not contemplative. Everything that they do has got to be active in a hysterical sort of way. They are very peculiar, the Japanese, very peculiar people. The women in Japan, I should say, are superior to the men. They are people of very refined taste: the way they dress, the way they paint, the poems they write. Many of the best novels written in Japan are written by women, such as The Tale of Genji. The Japanese are full of surprises, because the women are so refined and elegant and the men fundamentally so crude and rough. They believe strongly in virility, of course, and virility is mixed up with militarism. They occupied Peking when I was there and behaved appallingly. I have no great love of the Japanese male. It’s very difficult to say anything definite about Germans because they are so different from each other. Germany’s a land of individualists. People think that they are all together, all followers of Bismark, Hitler or whatever it is, but they’re not. Germans are strongly individual characters. You can see that in their music, in their philosophy, in their works of art.

The journey to your home in Tuscany has become a kind of pilgrimage for many. Are you happy to end your days in Florence, or do you ever feel like coming home?
I was born here, so my home is here. I feel Florentine and I’m an honorary citizen of Florence, and all my life-long friends, my closest associations are with Florentines. I left for China because of fascismo and China was my next love, but of course in view of what’s happened there, its worse even that facismo was here. So I could never think of going back or living as I did in Peking in a private house, surrounded by Chinese.

What was it that drew you into China initially? You say you felt strangely at home there.
I always loved Chinese art. The Chinese written character is in itself a very beautiful thing, a work of art, and their cooking is a very important element in civilization. I think people who feed well are on the side of the angels. It’s very important that people should eat decent food, properly cooked, and the Chinese do. It’s strongly in their favour. And their poetry is sung. When I was there, they would sing their poems. The effect was so very striking. Unlike our poets. We can hardly say that they sing.

I understand that the Chinese do not distinguish between an original work of art and an exact copy. Is that the best approach?
Their tradition is so strong that they go on painting in the same style as they did in the fifteenth century. Landscape artists, for instance, continue to paint in the style of the fifteenth-century Ming Dynasty. It may be a sort of limitation to talent. I don’t think that always remaining so traditional is such a good thing. The great artists have always broken with tradition. Turner, for instance, with his billowing seas and all that, broke with the tradition of the eighteenth-century landscape in his landscapes. That’s the way art should be: alive. Start with the tradition, but then break it; rules have got to be broken.

How can we really enter into the appropriate frame of reference to allow us to respond properly to work in an alien tradition, like that of China?
I feel there’s too much emphasis on the word alien. I think it’s exaggerated. A Chinese artist can appreciate a drawing by Michelangelo and Michelangelo would appreciate a good landscape by some eighteenth-century Chinese. Art is a republic, not monarchy.

Writing about China, you say: ‘Behind the broad main streets were networks of alleys, rather slummy, with their mounds of refuse and mongrel dogs.’ Did you not find this public indifference distressing?
The back streets were full of families all living together, crowded, but not really squalid, because they had a certain dignity. The Chinese lived in a very agreeable way. I wouldn’t have minded joining one of those households.

You also record that in the average year, 29, 000 corpses, the bodies of over-worked young mill-workers, were gathered on the streets. Didn’t your knowledge of this interfere with your admiration of China?
I think all countries have something of that kind, you know. It’s not publicized, but I think it’s not so extraordinary. It happens everywhere.

Do you think there is anything left in Communist China of what originally drew you to the country?
The landscape remains, and they have protected a good many of their old monuments, I imagine, and from what I hear the Forbidden City in Peking remains the same. But the spirit perhaps has gone, as people are unified by Marxism. I can’t believe that that suits the Chinese, not the Chinese I knew, who were very independent and individual. But I never think of China now. I try not to think of it because I was extremely happy there and saw it couleur de rose.

What is it like to smoke opium?
I never became and addict, but I occasionally joined a Chinese friend and smoked a pipe and very much enjoyed it. It seemed to clear my mind and allowed me to forget about the tiresome irritations of life. I found it soothing. And I think that the danger of opium is grossly exaggerated. I have known many people who have smoked it for years who are now old, and yet in spite of their age are flourishing.

You give an account of a visit to an astrologer in Calcutta. Do you, or did you, believe in such things?
Oh, yes. I believe in these things. I don’t begin to understand it, but that it exists and that it has existed for centuries and is very strong in India there is no doubt at all. I feel that the Indians have got another sense for astrology which we lack here. Our lives are so different from theirs in that way. We can’t keep pace with that strange other-world-liness.

You wrote that a book of memoirs should concentrate on all that is vital and attempt to recapture the moments of exultation and delight. Is there no place for a recollection of sadder times?
I don’t think that sadness adds to other people’s vitality, and I’m all in favour of vitality. The sad, the gloomy, the depressing are life-diminishing, and I’m for the life-enhancing. So much is life-diminishing nowadays that we must return to the National Gallery and the Louvre to refresh ourselves. In all our lives we have had sad, not to say tragic times, especially during the world wars. One is surrounded by tragedy, but man is helpless against that sort of tragedy. I would say I have been fortunate in my own life. I’ve been privileged to live here in Florence in a fifteenth-century villa with a garden surrounded by statues by well-known sculptors. If I were unhappy it would be a crime. But I do have a horror of death, an absolute horror of it. I enjoy life so much that I would really not welcome death at all. So many friends of mine commit suicide or threaten it. I just don’t understand. Life is so wonderful, there’s so much more to discover. We’re given these blessings, and living here in Florence I’d be mad to wish to die. I don’t consider my work to be of much importance, but I don’t think I have done yet what I have it in me to do, which is to write a good short story. But if I were to live my life again, I think I would do the same thing again. I would write, I would edit magazines at Oxford. I don’t think I could have chosen another path. My only regret is that I didn’t write better, that I haven’t done more with a flow imagination. But you can’t force that. It is something you are born with. Otherwise I have nothing but thankfulness for the life I have enjoyed.

What fortifies you nowadays against life’s disappointments?
It’s a very difficult question, but with age I enjoy the beauty of landscapes, scenery and architecture more perhaps than ever, and that keeps me alert and optimistic in my outlook, but otherwise I’m afraid I don’t really enjoy the present moment. It’s only through art that I exist: through my love of the arts. I have no belief of any kind in my genius. No, that is a part of youth. In youth we’re all geniuses. When one is young one has a spirit, but it grows rather feeble as the years pass. Now I find myself rather disappointed with life. I suppose that is a part of creeping age, of getting feebler with the years and becoming mentally not quite so alert. I don’t really feel so buoyant as I used to. I used to be very active, particularly when I was at Oxford, editing Oxford Poetry and surrounded by very talented poets like Peter Quennell and Robert Graves, and a great many distinguished dons like Beazley, the greatest authority on Greek vases in the world, and Gow on the plough, famous also as a Greek scholar. It seemed like a Renaissance when I was at Oxford, but the Renaissance didn’t last.

 

Is Salt The Enemy ?

Yoghurt has many known benefits. It is considered by most to be the best cure for an upset stomach and is now reputed to lower high blood pressure. Researchers have discovered that diets high in salt are killing off beneficial bacteria in our guts, without these friendly microbes our bodies start producing cells that increase inflammation – making our blood vessels narrower, and leading to high blood pressure.

Now their experiments have shown that consuming a probiotic yoghurt drink reduces the inflammation triggering cells. Probiotics are found in bio live yoghurts as well as fermented foods such as sauerkraut. But the US team at the MIT warned it was not a license for people to consume as much salt as they like as long as they ate yoghurt. A breakthrough, published in the journal Native could lead to new therapies to tackle high blood pressure which affects a quarter of Britons.

Professor David Reiman of Stanford University in California, reviewed findings in the journal and said: ‘They have profound potential. This latest discovery is most welcome as it is bound to give relief to those suffering from high blood pressure as well as those with a sensitive stomach.’

As it happens, I’m a great believer in yoghurt which I take daily to fend off any excess salt intake which could be harmful to the system.

An Author Worth Backing

I was delighted last week when I read a review of a book we published recently to great acclaim by everyone who read it, including Steven Berkoff, the actor, playwright and theatre director whose style was once described by the drama critic Aleks Sierz as ‘in-yer-face theatre’, as follows:

‘The language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each other, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen and want all their friends to see it too. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation.’

I was equally thrilled that Berkoff whose path happened to cross mine as the publisher of his book Gross Intrusion, a collection of short stories which Quartet published in 1993, for the simple reason that his review of Unaccompanied Minor by Alexander Newley was beautifully expressed as follows:

I recently read Alexander Newley’s brilliant autobiography ‘Unaccompanied Minor’. I can’t recommend it enough. ‘‘Unaccompanied Minor’ by Alexander Newley is one of the most compelling and readable memoirs I have ever spent valuable hours on. It’s a page turner!

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Even more so when your parents are Joan Collins and theatrical legend Anthony Newley. Well we all know Joan, but who’s Anthony Newley? Being an oldie I can claim a far greater sense of possession of this once great cabaret performer and songwriter, who was nothing less than a force of nature on stage and a gifted writer of lyrics that have lasted through the decades. It was a performance unlike any other I had seen in which Newley used every technique in the book, appearing as a white-faced mime, clown, singer, actor and who wrote the damn thing as well!
His son Alexander has somehow absorbed his father’s Psychic DNA. He is a very different kind of Littlechap, but there he is still struggling, still fighting against the whips and scorns and even now at middle age there is a very touching portrait of Alexander, actually a self-portrait of the older boy shown comforting himself as a child. The child holding onto his older self’s shorts while the present has his arm round him protectively.


There is also a second portrait in the book, also painted by Newley (a consummate painter), of the child Newley and his sister sitting on the back of his beloved dad. He and his sister Tara are sandwiched between the older Tony Newley and Joan Collins. Again the present Newley stands watching, arms crossed in the background. The painting is ablaze with sunshine and Tony Newley looks idyllically happy, as does Joan kneeling proudly.
Newley looks on wistfully if not sadly, as if wishing this life of happy families will last forever but it doesn’t. The two big stars part and then poor Alexander becomes a divided being, feeling perpetually torn apart except for the few rare times when he re-joins his dad for some quality time on a fishing trip to Alaska which is evoked in some of his best writing of the book.


Newley, like his pa is almost unfairly gifted with talent, as both a painter and now as a highly gifted writer. His own face graces the dust jacket of the book. It is a bold, expressive portrait and yet his expression is riven with anguish. Yet one might say that he has also been spoiled rotten throughout his young life, but that seems to make little difference to a young boy who is craving the simplest of comforts, a family.’

As the publisher of Unaccompanied Minor, what more can I say than endorse what Steven Berkoff has already said. However, my own advice is buy the book and find out for yourself

STORMS AHOY?

Science and research come out these days with the most unexpected phenomenon. Now they tell us that if you are trying to work out whether next summer will be a wash out, it’s tempting to look up a long term forecast. But for the clearest predictions you might be better off studying a patch of ocean more than 2,000 miles away, experts have suggested.

Researchers believe the weather in an area of the North Atlantic can give us an accurate forecast for how wet or dry the British summer will be, two months in advance. If the expanse of sea east of Newfoundland is warm from April to May, we can expect a drier summer in July and August, experts said. When the temperature in the region is cold in the spring, the opposite will occur and Britains can expect a much more damp summer.

The test is nearly 60 per cent accurate, according to the University of Reading team. The reason warm seas near Canada – 2,100 miles away – affect our weather is because of the Jet Stream – a fast moving wind which blows summer rain storms to the UK. With warmer temperatures, the Jet Stream blows further north missing the British Isles. The effect is known as the Summer Fast Atlantic (SEA) Pattern. While the researchers are not able to predict whether a particular day or weekend will be picnic friendly, the breakthrough should make forecasting more accurate than before, it was claimed.

Lead researcher Dr Albert Osso said the difference between a wet and a dry summer is about 3.5 inches (90mm) of rain. He said that until now there had been no accurate method of forecasting the British summer two months in advance. ‘Historically the forecast community have been more interested in predicting winter times and the big storms and heavy rainfall. Summertime has had less attention.’

Reiterating his findings, Dr Osso said: ‘The SEA Pattern has a particularly strong influence on the rainfall in the British Isles. When its waters in spring are warmer than normal, this leads to reduced summer rainfall over the UK, while when its water are colder than average, it leads to increased rainfall.’

The temperature readings he based his model on were taken by satellites, ships, and buoys in an area of roughly 386,000 square miles. The research was published in the Journal PNAS. A spokesman for the Met Office called the research an exciting development: ‘If the research from Reading does predict future rainfall that will be very helpful to other climate scientists and forecasters. It is one of the areas of climate science that has a pioneer element to it. More and more of these discoveries are being made which will help lock these findings into weather and climate models.’

All I can say is that with the incredibility of climate as it now stands, it would be a major triumph if we can at least accurately predict its movement two months in advance.

No longer with us

FRANCIS STUART

Francis Stuart was born in 29 April1902- 2 February 2000 and lived in Dublin. He is the author of over twenty novels, including The Pillar of Cloud, Black List: Section H and Redemption, which are autobiographically based. He fought with the Republicans during the Irish Civil War and he spent the Second World War years in Berlin from where he broadcast to Ireland. In 1920 he married Maude Gonne’s daughter Iseult who, like her mother, had turned down a proposal of marriage from Yeats. During the war years he lived with Roisin O’Mara, adopted daughter of General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief at the battle of the Dardanelles in the First World War. Hamilton was a German sympathizer and became involved with Hitler in 1936. In 1987, Francis Stuart married Fiona Graham, a thirty-year-old artist. He was awarded the highest artist accolade an Irish Saoi (wise man), a rare distinction in Ireland. Previous recipients of the honour include Samual Beckett, Mary Lavin and Sean O’Faolain. His years in Nazi Germany led to a great deal of controversy.

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I interviewed him in 1998 and here is the substance of what he told me then.

You are Australian by birth and Ulster Protestant by background. Did you have the feeling of being different from other people from the beginning?

I did, yes, but probably more because of a certain mystery surrounding my father, who killed himself in Australia when I was only a few weeks old. I never got to know the full circumstances, except that he had made several attempts at suicide and was in a mental clinic in Sydney when he made a final and successful attempt. This haunted and obsessed me, and I began to identify with him very much. His twin brother used to tell me how he had questioned my father, asking him if he felt lonely or persecuted, to which I understand he answered yes. But psychology was not as it is today, and that seemed a very primitive way of questioning. My mother never spoke of him, and nor did her family. I think the marriage was almost certainly unhappy. Although I thought I understood his reasons for suicide, the whole business remained mysterious.

In an article in the Observer last year you were described as an outcast in your own country, ostracized and reviled. Would you agree with that?

No, I wouldn’t mind if it was so, but it is absolutely ridiculous. In certain circles, among cultured people, I am highly regarded. I wouldn’t say I haven’t encountered hostility; as you probably know, I have encountered it everywhere, and here in Ireland not least, but on the other hand it is completely untrue to say I am ostracized and reviled.

You are often described as an incorrigible romantic. Do you wear that description as a badge of honour?

Again, it’s not true. I’m not a romantic, I’m a realist. The imaginative writer must make a model of reality, taking in everything. I have a great admiration for Heidegger who asked: ‘Why is there anything?’ We don’t know a lot, but from what we do know of nature and the cosmos we might expect there to be nothing. I’ve always been astonished at there being anything at all, and I’ve written in poems that it’s a miracle we’re here. Our task, as I see it, is to tend that miracle of existence, experience, consciousness.

Do you think romanticism is dangerous?

As I interpret it, yes, because it’s far from the real. If you make a model of all there is, as the imaginative mind must do, romanticism doesn’t enter into it. Realism, yes. It’s a very harsh planet on which we find ourselves.

In your autobiographical novel Black List: Section H you write: ‘Anyone whose behaviour collides with the popular faith of the time and place is automatically condemned.’ As someone who has experienced widespread condemnation, do you think it has been a price worth paying for your beliefs?

Undoubtedly so for me. I can only do my work after isolation, and it doesn’t matter how I come to be in that condition of isolation. I can’t imagine writing as an accepted member of society, and in so far as I write for anybody, I write for people like myself – isolated, lonely, and very close to despair at times. It’s not necessary for me to have had the life I have had to experience near despair and loneliness; I would have those feelings in any case since they are conditions of living. Without being presumptuous, you very likely have them too. They’re surely common to intelligent, imaginative people.

You were a Sinn Fein sympathizer in the 1920s and 1930s, and you were interned by the British. How did that come about?

I would say Republican rather than Sinn Fein. During the civil war here I was on the Republican and losing side, as I have always been. It is essential in my view to be on the losing side. I was interned for about a year, or perhaps nine months. I don’t remember exactly. I’ve been in six different prisons, mostly abroad, but never for very long. I was never sentenced – there was nothing I could have been charged with – but I was locked up all the same.

Were conditions harsh?

Hunger was the worst. In most prisons we didn’t get enough to eat, but then people on the outside were also hungry. There was overcrowding of course – at one point we had twelve to fifteen men in a cell meant for one or two. That was in Germany where I was interned by the French on the recommendation of the British. I was told that by a French intelligence officer, who said they had to do what the British told them.

What’s your attitude to Sinn Fein today?

If you mean the political party, I dislike all political parties. They give themselves airs and they make not the slightest difference to our lives. Any party could be in power here, it wouldn’t matter which. To my mind they are all a load of rubbish. I’m not the slightest bit interested in politics.

Your first marriage to Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, seems to have all the elements of pain and uncertainty associated with first love and a love that was very young … you were only eighteen. Would you agree with that?

I would, but I should add that the marriage lasted nearly twenty years, although we had terrific rows and so on. I felt very sorry for Iseult. She was one of these innocents, if you know what I mean; she put up with me, which wasn’t easy, and she also put up with her mother, who to my mind was an unpleasant woman. She suffered from both ends.

Was her mother against you?

Yes, but that was understandable. I was an unknown boy from the north, with no background, no money, nothing to recommend me. A boy of eighteen marries her daughter, whom Yeats and other people would gladly have married … I wasn’t a great catch to put it mildly.

The poet Kathleen Raine, whom I interviewed a year or two ago, talks about the purity of young love, which she describes as absolute, the sense that you can’t imagine feeling this for anyone else. Do you remember that first love, the intensity of it, or has it gone completely?

It’s very hard to say with hindsight. What I find is that if I write about certain memories and then try and recall them later, what I remember is what I’ve written about them. If I hadn’t written about them I could perhaps go back to the real thing, but as it is I’m wary of many of my memories. The love we had was certainly one of great intensity, and that meant great rows and violence. We each destroyed things that the other valued. I did some sculpture in those days, and I had one of a bird which I prized very much, and Iseult took that and threw it on the floor. And I once took a pile of her dresses and poured petrol over them.

Do you regret all of that?

In one way I don’t. But I have given hurt, and I do regret that and find it shocking.

In Black List the character H is jealous of the fact that Iseult and the poet Ezra Pound have been lovers … was that something which obsessed you at the time?

I think it did undoubtedly. Sex – sensuality is perhaps a better word – is an extraordinary driving force. And to imagine your partner in the arms of somebody else, that was part of the sensuality. I became obsessed by it.

Did the fact that Iseult had rejected Yeats’ offer of marriage make for awkwardness between you and Yeats later on?

I never found it so. I got on well with him, and he was extraordinarily generous to me. He said that with some luck I would be one of our fine writers. For myself I’m not an admirer of Yeats in one way. He is of course a great poet – it would be ridiculous to say otherwise – but he’s not a poet I would go to for comfort in times of stress. People thought Yeats put on a lot of airs, but he didn’t. He was in fact a very lonely man who would have liked to have had close friends and didn’t. Ordinary people, even intellectuals, couldn’t get on with Yeats much. He had none of the normal social gifts. When we used to stay with Yeats, I’d stay awake all night racking my brains to think of some profound statement to come up with the next day. Sometimes it used to go terribly wrong.

The marriage to Iseult broke up about 1940. So many things were changing and dissolving in those days – did it perhaps seem symptomatic of the times that it should have broken up in 1940?

I suppose it did, yes, and so it was. Many more important things than my marriage broke up at that time.

Can you tell me what it was about Hitler and the Nazi movement which attracted you in the first place?

One of the things which I have always thought so unjust is the powerlessness of the poet. The creative mind shouldn’t be powerless, and the only way the writer is not powerless is if he has a warlord to look up to, as Milton had Cromwell. Only then is he given that power in the world that he believes is his due. I know that to be a false belief now, but at the time I wanted a warlord to revere. If Hitler hadn’t had this manic anti-Semitic obsession, there was a lot to admire in him. But another reason why I went to Germany and later even broadcast from Germany was the business of war itself, which is a terrible thing. If one side wages war because they see another, foreign regime, committing awful crimes, they should know by now that they can’t possibly hope to win that war without using the same, perhaps even more horrible methods, and that was so in the last war. The Allies used similar methods in order to win it, but they went into it saying they were conducting a Christian Crusade, and to my mind that is a terrible thing. It seems to me you are polluting all moral values if you say that. They were defending Europe against a horrible regime, but they weren’t conducting a Christian crusade. By claiming that they were, they were doing something very evil.

Did you ever meet Hitler?

No, but I could easily have done so because the American minister here in Ireland before the war, a man called John Cudahy, asked the Führer if he would grant me an audience. When the war broke out John left the embassy and went to Germany to work as a newspaper correspondent, for the New York Herald Tribune, I think. He had at least two audiences with Hitler, and on one occasion I told him about this neutral Irish writer whose books he had read and liked, and who was in Germany. Hitler apparently said to bring him along, but I never did go. I remember warning John about the dangers and telling him that the British were well aware of his meetings with the Führer and they’d be very happy to get rid of him. He rather scorned the idea, but then he went to Switzerland and within two or three days he was dead. It was reported that he’d had a heart attack or something of that sort, but there was no doubt whatsoever that the British did away with him. Understandably, of course. In war everything is allowable.

Was he very pro-Hitler?

Not so much, but he was advising Hitler not to provoke the Americans into war, and that was the last thing the British wanted.

You have said that you soon discovered that Hitler was not the answer, but one of the reasons you stayed in Germany was because of your hostility to the British. On what exactly was this hostility based?

It was based on their attitude of moral superiority. At one stage the Allied leaders, including Churchill, met in mid-Atlantic on a battleship and sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. That to me was so shocking.

Do you think the hostility might also have had anything to do with the English public-school system which you were part of?

Rugby had a great effect on me – not so much a moral effect, but it toughened me up in a way that allowed me to survive six prisons. None of them was as bad as Rugby.

Do you still have residual feelings of hostility towards the British?

No, not as a people, though I still think their attitude is moralistic.

During the war you broadcast to Ireland from Berlin on behalf of the Reich. What did you feel you were trying to achieve at that time?

It’s not easy now, half a century later, truthfully to recall one’s real impulses, but I thought I might supply the arguments from the other side, since there was nobody to broadcast them to my own country. I never dealt with military matters or the conduct of the war, I never touched on that. I did expose the hypocrisy of the Allied cause, but as it turned out later I never met anyone who ever heard my broadcasts. They went out late at night when nobody was listening.

Setting aside the political aspect, what was life in Berlin like in 1940? Was it a lively place?

Indeed it was, up till 1944. If you had plenty of money, that is.

Did you have plenty of money?

Yes, and I looked to the black market for luxuries. There was plenty of night life too, though I was never one for that.

What about women?

There were lots of women. I had one in particular called Roisin O’Mara, whose origins were obscure to say the least.

I presume she was Irish…

No, I wouldn’t say she claimed to be Irish. She was adopted by an English family, an aristocratic family. Her adopted father was in command at the battle of the Dardanelles, which was a frightful mess-up for the British, as you know. That’s neither here nor there, but it certainly didn’t recommend him as a general. Roisin O’Mara had olive-tinted skin – I would imagine she came from the Middle East.

How did you meet her?

When the war broke out some of my German acquaintances told me that there was an Irish girl studying in Berlin, and she was in a very precarious position as she was undoubtedly a British subject. They asked me to keep an eye on her. I had a very large flat at the time and so I gave her a room. She was actually pregnant and had a baby.

Was that anything to do with you?

No, nothing to do with me. But we became lovers.

What happened to her?

Nothing. She’s still around. She wrote a book in Irish, which unfortunately I can’t read, but I’m told it makes a very strong plea for the other side of the war. There’s a photograph which I took of her in Berlin in the book. She was very beautiful.

You were very fond of her?

Oh, indeed I was. But I never saw her after the war.

Do you find it surprising that fifty years later many people have still not forgiven you for broadcasting from Germany?

Oh no, that is not surprising, that’s very understandable. But I have no regrets.

Your friend Samuel Beckett joined the French resistance and received the Croix de Guerre for his work. Did you never think you might have done the same?

It was entirely convenient for the French to give a high decoration to a foreign collaborator, but I thought it was farcical.

In the afterword to the recent reissue of Redemption, you go some way towards explaining why you spent the war in Germany, ignoring the warning from a professor at Berlin University that by doing so you would be greatly damaging your own future. You explain it in terms of certain events in history having a counterpart, and despite the fact, perhaps because of the fact, that the fight against Nazism was almost universal in the English-speaking world, you thought there was a need, perhaps even a duty, to counter that consensus. Is that a fair way of representing it, do you think?

I don’t think it’s completely fair, because I have always believed that consensus is evil. A consensus of intelligent people is to my mind always wrong. I think it was Simone Weil who said if you see the scales heavily weighed down on the right side, on the moral side, put your small offering on the other side. And I believe she was right.

Do you believe in evil?

Yes I do.

Would you say that a movement, an ideology such as Nazism, could be said to embody evil, and to that extent it is our duty to resist it?

I would answer yes to the first part, that it could be said to embody evil, but that it is our duty to resist it – I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. You just have to deal with it according to the precise circumstances as they arise in your life. There is no need for a general theory.

Were the Allies right to resist Nazism in your view?

Physically in terms of arms, they were right, but they were not right to claim that they were waging a Christian crusade.

Were you ever afraid that you might actually be hanged alongside people like John Amery and William Joyce who were regarded as British traitors?

It was unlikely because I did not have a British passport. I had one in my youth when I was in the North and we were all part of Britain, but after that I had a valid Irish passport. They could have hanged me, I suppose, but it would have been such a travesty of justice.

Do you think one can be morally neutral?

You can’t have a morally neutral attitude in general but in precise circumstances I think you can. In my situation in Germany it was right to be neutral.

In the afterword to Redemption you also talk of Ireland as having ‘sat out the world conflict on bacon and tea’. That would seem to contain elements of judgement and condemnation…

I was just stating a fact. In Ireland it was called the Emergency, which is a funny way of describing the greatest war in history, and they complained about rationing. They weren’t going to let the business of war interfere with their lives. I’m not condemning them. Why should I condemn them? If I’d been in Ireland I would have also been eating bacon and eggs.

You have sometimes been compared with Jean Genet. Is it a comparison you welcome without qualification?

Yes, I think highly of Genet. He was a fine person. To the world he was amoral, but I think he undoubtedly acted from a certain moral faith, which is rare.

Edmund White, Genet’s biographer, said that again and again Genet was attracted to the person everyone else despised, the lowest person. Do you think that has been the case with you, either in life or in fiction?

It could be, but I think with me that’s incidental. I’m more attracted to the so-called war lords, because they have the power which I think – or used to think – I should have. I believed that imaginative minds, explorers and probers into reality – they should all have power in a just society.

To what do you attribute your success with women?

I wasn’t ugly, let’s say, but also I was positive in my approach to them. I never regarded a woman as just a passing passion or a piece of sensuality. The woman of the moment was always for me THE woman who was going to be with me for the rest of my life. I must honestly say that I think that was to my credit.

Were you sexually driven?

Very much so, yes.

Were you considered a good lover?

It’s very hard to say now. If you’re with a woman in a sensual situation she’s hardly going to say to you that you didn’t live up to her expectations. But I don’t honestly think I was especially good, no.

You seem to have been more than unusually interested in finding the truth, even if it was painful. That is the backdrop to a great deal of your fiction. Do you feel that you have found the truth – if one can put it like that – and was it worth the pain?

I found what I call reality – I prefer the word reality to truth. Truth is somehow a bit pretentious. If you find only a limited reality there is no point in it. You have to ask, what is the greater reality in which this limited reality of daily life is contained?

As a Christian do you believe in an afterlife?

I don’t really believe in heaven. When I say I believe in the Christian faith, I read the Gospels and get a lot of comfort and inspiration out of them. That doesn’t mean I’m bound to take their views as final about anything, but it would be very wrong, just because the Gospels report something which is more or less incredible, to reject them. As regards the afterlife, it’s not a question I’m in a position to answer from the intelligence I have been granted or from the experiences I’ve had. It’s beyond me to say yes or no to an afterlife. There is no point in doing so. In my long lifetime I have some very intense memories of far-back happenings, and I can’t see them being erased completely, even after I die.

Are you afraid of death?

Yes, I would say so, although my fear of death would not take priority over all my other anxieties. If I were to die tomorrow, my greatest anxiety would be what would become of my cat.

Going back to Redemption for a moment, one of the most striking passages reads as follows: ‘There is nothing in the world that couldn’t be called a few scratches, from music to love. It’s a question of making the right scratches.’ Is that a very significant statement for you? Would you say that you have managed to make the right scratches?

It is a significant statement, yes. Whether on a music score or in your own situation, it is only a matter of making scratches, that’s all we can do. As far as my own scratches are concerned, all I can say is that they were always positive. They were always scratches of a believer, rather than a sceptic.

One of the things that struck me when I read Redemption was the business of the girl who was raped. She recounts to Ezra the trauma and says to Ezra that it’s lucky Margaretta is dead because she wouldn’t have to suffer the torment of being raped. And Ezra replies that he would rather Margaretta had been raped twenty times over than be dead. Was that your own view?

Oh yes. Because to be raped would have been nothing to be ashamed of, for her or for me, and to have her alive was everything. I meant exactly that.

Later when Ezra describes a young girl as being raped he said, ‘Violence never takes the shape you imagine it will.’ What has been the impact of violence in your own life?

The impact of violence has been very considerable in my life. I’ve experienced many violent events, and been intimately involved with violence. I’ve heard executions from a prison cell, and I’ve been within earshot of several others.

In the same book Ezra makes a distinction between what he calls ‘a real lover’ and ‘a real and final friend’, saying that a wife is actually a third thing, coming somewhere between the two. He says that ‘to be a wife is to be incapable of the final unjudging friendship’. Is that written more in sorrow than in anger? Has it been a personal disillusionment for you?

Yes, I suppose so. That remark stems from the time when I wanted a ménage à trios with Madeline and Iseult refused. I thought our hearts has been changed by war – my own heart had been changed, and I thought I could bring back Madeline and Iseult would accept it. But their hearts had not changed like mine. And still I thought I could change them. I told a friend, a German professor at the university and he said that was very naïve of me. And then he said a funny thing – he asked me which of them I would go for walks with. I didn’t see it as a problem, but he obviously did.

But presumably there would have been problems. I mean, how would you have organized the sleeping arrangements?

I would like to have acted from impulse. As a writer it’s the only way to act, naturally, as it occurs.

You also write: ‘Marriage may be holy but it is also apt to be heartless as far as the rest of the world is concerned.’ What was in your mind when you wrote that, I wonder? Is marriage heartless?

Oh yes. Couples are heartless, ruthless towards the rest of the world if something from outside threatens them. They don’t have any understanding or compassion…

In your novel Black List you write: ‘Dishonour is what becomes a poet, not titles or acclaim.’ What is the foundation of that belief?

Experience. The creative mind can only write out of isolation which comes from dishonour largely, because if you’re honoured you’re not isolated.

You have – perhaps uniquely, certainly more than most writers – written books which reflect the events of your own life. One might almost say you have lived your own fiction. Do you see it that way yourself? Do reality and fiction ever blur in your own mind?

Yes, they do. It’s partly the fault of my memory, but they do blur, and I believe that that is a fault of many good writers today. The life and work of a writer should not be separate; they should be completely joined.

In Black List you describe how H, after receiving Holy Communion, kneels down by a stone column and says again and again, ‘My Lord and my God’. He then asks whether, if all religion be myth, that invalidates the experience of the moment. How would you yourself answer that question?

No, it doesn’t invalidate it. Even if the Catholic or any other religion is all legend and myth, it doesn’t invalidate it in the slightest. Just as a parable doesn’t invalidate the truth that is represented by the parable. The myth, if it’s intense enough, stands by itself.

Have you thought a great deal about religion during your life?

I’ve thought a lot about it, yes. And still do. I’ve asked the questions, but the answers are quite beyond us.

In Redemption Ezra says to the priest: ‘In general what a horrible egoism family egoism is, and your Catholic family egoism is the nastiest of all.’ Do you believe that?

Yes. I’ve seen it at work. Their absolute ruthlessness against anything from the outside that threatens them is quite shocking, and the Catholic church encourages that attitude.

You have a special affection for Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Why is that?

She was brought up a very strict and pious Catholic, really maudlin – it was quite sickening to read of her early running to the church. And then she got into this convent where she had at least two sisters already, who made it very easy for her. She was a pious little creature, with that conventional piety which is so horrible. After a while, I don’t know how long really, but very soon, all faith, consolation and belief were taken from her. Maybe that’s not the right way to put it, but she lost her faith at any rate. She became as far as possible a sceptic, and I think that must have been a terrible experience. There she was, in the convent, more or less a prisoner. She went there out of belief that she didn’t have any more. And yet of course she didn’t say that she didn’t have it, because she couldn’t have borne it. Then she became tubercular. The Normandy climate didn’t help and she didn’t have enough covering on her cot. Once she woke up in the night coughing, and she could feel her mouth filling with blood. She spat it into a napkin but she didn’t put on the light. In the morning she saw it was obviously arterial blood from the lung and she knew her fate was sealed. The fact that she didn’t put the light on was a great act of self-flagellation.

Didn’t you write about her in a novel?

Yes, it was funny – well, at least the consequences were funny. I was very attracted to Thérèse of Lisieux and I wrote that I was in bed with her that night when she coughed. When she put the napkin to her mouth, I said to her, put on the light, and she said, no I won’t. She only put it on in the morning, and of course when we saw it, we knew she was doomed within a very short period. I wrote all this in a novel and some people who were admirers of my work told me that it was simply horrible of me to write such a thing and vowed that was the last book of mine they would read. They found it offensive that I should have used this obviously very private and painful event in the life of somebody whom I was supposed to revere. I just thought, well, why not.

You have often been to Lourdes. Do you actually believe in miracles?

No. I went to Lourdes because I wanted to wheel the stick down to the grotto, and then into the basilica for the blessing in the evening. I got to know them as I would not have done normally. You enter into other people’s consciousness that way. Of course in many ways it was heart-breaking.

In your novel Memorial, published in 1973, you quote Derek Mahon who speaks in a poem of the author living ‘in obscurity and derision’. Is that how you see yourself perhaps?

Yes, I suppose so. It was certainly the fact of the matter when I wrote it. It’s perhaps changing somewhat now, but it used to be that if my name was mentioned it would arouse quite a bit of derision.

Do you believe you will be read more after your death than during your lifetime?

Yes.

Is that not a bitter thought … or is it one which comforts?

Neither one nor the other really. Historically speaking, I think I won’t be forgotten. But whether that’s a great comfort is another matter. Presumably I won’t be there to get any satisfaction from it.

Would you say you are at peace with yourself now?

No, no. I’ll never be at peace with myself.

Why is that, do you think?

Many reasons, the most obvious being that nobody of imaginative intelligence who finds himself on this very harsh planet can possibly be at peace. Our life is very cruel, and if there is a divine creator, let us say that one side of him is extremely ruthless. He has compassion, undoubtedly, but let us just say that his spirit is very complex.

You were selected recently to become an Irish Saoi, while on a previous occasion you were passed over. Has the establishment now forgiven your sins, do you think, and does it mean fuller recognition of your talent as a writer?

Yes, it does of course. I write in English, which after all is one of the languages that really counts, and as a writer in English I am highly regarded. It would be rather silly of these people in the establishment not to take that into account. They are of course British, and a stupid lot, most of them.

Aren’t you pleased that you’re being honoured?

Not especially, no. I don’t consider it a great honour, but I will go along with it.

In pursuit of the sun

Astronomy is my current topic of interest. The more I discover about what goes on beyond what we are unlikely to see clearly from Earth, the more I become curious and rather addicted to know more.

Now scientists are perusing the solar system’s hottest destination – the Sun – and humanity will get closer than ever before to the stars at the centre of it. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe which will launch later this year will fly into its outer corona ‘to touch the Sun’, as the space agency’s lead scientist described it.

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The robotic probe which has been named after Eugene Parker, a ninety-year-old physicist whose research underpins modern solar science, will be the fastest and hottest spaceship built, travelling at 450,000 miles per hour to avoid being sucked in by the Sun’s powerful gravity. Its heat shield will face temperatures of about 1,400°C.

Europe is also joining the rush to the Sun, launching its own probe some months after NASA’s craft. The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Solar Orbiter will sit a little further from the Sun gathering data and spotting coronal mass injections, or solar storms. These are massive eruptions that can wreck satellites, power networks and mobile phone systems by generating magnetic storms.

‘Another aim of both probes is to study solar wind, the billions of tonnes of electrified gas injected into space by the Sun every hour,’ said Professor Richard Harrison, chief scientist at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which has built instruments for the ESA craft.

‘Since time began we have seen the Sun from only one viewpoint – our planet,’ said Harrison. ‘The solar orbiter will fly above and below it giving our first view of the Sun’s north and south poles as well as observing magnetic storms.’

Scientists are not the only people excited by such prospects. The cabinet office recently updated its national emergency disaster plan to rank solar storms as one of the most serious natural hazards faced by the UK.

NASA said one aim was to predict space weather. The data will help improve how we forecast major eruptions on the Sun and subsequent space weather events that can impact life on Earth as well as satellites and astronauts in space.

That would certainly be a step forward which is likely to give us advance notice of gigantic storms emanating from the Sun which we know very little about and could possibly cause havoc on Earth.