Heavy Years

Last night we celebrated the launch of Heavy Years by Augustus Young at the Master’s Room, The Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square London W1CN 3AT.

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In the course of the evening , and as his publisher I said a few words about the event to encourage people to purchase the book and make the author and Quartet content and appreciative.

Here is my short address in full.

Firstly, may I welcome you all to this celebration of James’s new book – or should I use his pen name? Quartet has never published a pseudonym before and I’m not quite sure of the etiquette.

But as an imprint with a proud record over forty years of publishing the very best literature, I’m thrilled to welcome James or Augustus to our stable, for its time Augustus Young gets the recognition his remarkable writing deserves.

Most of us here, I presume, already appreciate his humane, unique, sly humour and totally agree with the Irish Times comparing his 2002 iconic autofiction, Light Years, on a par with Flann O’Brian. I am convinced Heavy Years has all the same qualities.

Written with razor-sharp wit and a keen eye for the absurd, Heavy Years is a beguiling work which cuts through the chaos of the late twentieth-century NHS, one of Britain’s most cherished and controversial institutions. The unnamed narrator has his own agenda; simply put, that public health and well-being should be the foundation on which politics is built, not a tool of political machinations. However, he soon realises good sense and a lifelong interest in philosophy are not enough to challenge the Kafkaesque inner workings of the NHS, and he finds himself increasingly absorbed into the status quo.
But that’s enough from me, apart from urging you all to buy as many copies as you can afford, to spread the good word, and it is with both pride and pleasure that I introduce this remarkable author and his gem of a book.

No Longer With Us

SIR DENIS FORMAN

Denis Forman was born in Scotland in 1917-2013 and educated at Loretto and Pembroke College, Cambridge. During the war he served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, being wounded at Cassino in 1944. His war experiences are recounted in To Reason Why, which appeared in 1991. After the war he began producing films for the Central Office of Information and in 1948 he became a director of the National Film Institute. He was the inspiration behind the establishment of National Film Theatre before joining Granada Television in 1964. His latest book, Persona Granada (1997), charts the history of Granada Television of which he was chairman form 1974-87. His interest in music culminated in his directorship of the Royal Opera House and in his books, Mozart’s Piano Concertos and The Good Opera Guide.

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Here is the substance of an interview I did with him in 1996.

In your reminiscences you describe how two people inhabited the one person. One was perplexed and often unhappy, the other was extrovert and charming. Do these two people still co-exist?

Over the years they’ve become familiar with each other and although they haven’t moulded into one person, they are much less dissimilar than they used to be in the early days.

You grew up in a prosperous Scottish family with all the trappings of the upper class – nannies, under-nurses, afternoon tea, servant halls, and so on, yet you never really felt comfortable…

No, I was not happy with the upstairs life. The top part of the house in which I grew up was the nursery, and there were eight children, six brothers and sisters and two adopted, and they made up one community, one culture. On the ground floors were the grown ups, people who were remote and a bit pompous, people we didn’t really know very well, and below that were the servants. These three cultures co-existed, but my favourite culture was the servants; I preferred them to the noisy nursery and the posh middle floor.

Did that remain the case as you grew older?

I’ve always had a strong prejudice against well-bred, aristocratic people. It takes a lot for me to get over the fact that a man’s been to Eton. I really have to struggle to like a man who has been to Eton. That has stayed with me all my life, and the upper-class accent is something that sets my teeth on edge, and when I hear the royals speak I have to close my ears.

Do you think you were born with an innate sense of independence, as it were? The structures of your upbringing were so firm it’s difficult to see how you could have questioned them and rejected them so completely without a strong freedom of spirit…

It was more that I refused to accept any convention, any received wisdom, or indeed any view if I had not convinced myself that it was sane and sensible. This came about by reading. My father, who had been a clerk in holy orders, had a huge library of theology and amongst this was an encyclopaedia of ethics. I found in my reading that most of the Christian ethics were actually remnants of tribal beliefs which had been going on for thousands and thousands of years. If the tribal beliefs were no longer thought to be valid, I couldn’t see why the hell Christianity should still be thought to be valid, and I was very firm on this from an early age, from about twelve or thirteen. I found that the Christian religion was unacceptable.
Did this apply to all religions?

It was particularly the self-confident religions, including the whole of Islam, which I found unacceptable. And because I grew up with Christianity, and people were always praying or talking about God or giving you a lecture, Christianity was on the doorstep all the time, and that made it worse. Hinduism and Buddhism seemed more tolerant, more agreeable, and I loved the Greek myths. I thought they had the right way to treat gods – that was the proper place for them.

Looking back, do you feel grateful that you had something to rebel against?

I suppose it served a purpose. It made me self-reliant and you also have to have a great deal of stamina and courage, if you’re going to rebel and stick to it, because you make yourself exceedingly unpopular. Nobody likes a rebel who contradicts their deepest and most dearly held beliefs. I mean, I loved my mother and father, I loved my brothers and sisters, and to offend them so deeply was not easy, but it seemed to me I had to do it.

Were you the only rebellious member of the family?

I was the first, but one by one they dropped off the perch. By the time they were mature people there was perhaps only one out of the eight who still believed in God. It wasn’t particularly my influence – they were sensible people and they came to their own conclusions.

In many ways you rebelled against the things you also loved best. Was it painful to you that you couldn’t enjoy the circumstances of your childhood – the countryside, the privileges – without the evocation of class which they entailed?

Actually I had a great capacity for enjoyment, especially with the servants and my brothers and sisters. My deep disquiet with the upper class didn’t in any way inhibit me from having a happy childhood. I just cut myself off from the nonsense that was going on upstairs.

So did you in fact enjoy the privileges of your upbringing?

I took them for granted; all children do. I knew there were poor people, but I absolutely never questioned the fact that we had a lot of cars and ponies and servants. That was just the life we led.

It struck me when reading your memoirs that many people would have given anything to have the advantages of your childhood, not just in material terms but in the sense of it not being banal. At least your parents discussed the nature of sin, the problem of evil…in other words, it can’t have been dull. Have you thought of it in that way?

Yes. One of the great advantages of being brought up in our household was the constant debate on every topic – music, poetry, literature. My grandmother in particular was a great taster of new novels. She read all the brilliant new novels that came out, although every now and then she would reject one because the characters were too disreputable. Music was always a subject which was very close to everyone’s interest, and of course religion was always being debated. I didn’t care for that so much, but the debate itself was good fun. All my life I have enjoyed debate, even though I’m very often arguing a case I don’t really feel very strongly.

Your feeling of being different from those in the outside world was developed fairly early on. Has this sense of being different from others continued throughout your life?

There are of course different ways of being different. The fact that I am a Scotsman born and bred has given me a particular view of the English whom I still see as a foreign race. I have worked with Jews a lot in my life, and I see them as a race for whom I have more affection and with whom I have more affinity than the English. I have never been able to tolerate the top class English very easily. During my upbringing I formed a very close association with working people, and I still feel that they are the basic human ingredient in life, those people who worked on the farm in Dumfriesshire. Subconsciously, I think I measure important people, rich people, clever people, against that inbred feeling that the farm workers really were the guys I liked.

You say you sometimes felt ashamed for not liking your father better, especially when everyone else thought him such a decent chap. Why did he disappoint you so much?

That is a very fundamental question about fathers and sons. He was a decent chap, but he was also unconscious of the fact that he was treating his wife as if she were a second-class person. He behaved towards his family as if he were the major general and they were all private soldiers, and he treated the outside world very often as would a public relations man. He was extremely good at ingratiating himself with certain kinds of visitors, churchmen, for example, and within his own orbit he was very well thought of. In my home town even today, they speak of my father with great affection. But there was a very firm code of conduct which you could not break.

What sort of father would you have chosen for yourself?

I think I would have chosen a more open-minded and better educated father. I would have liked a father who was prepared to discuss and debate on equal terms with me, not simply hand down received wisdom and tell me it was true. There was no interplay, only commands from on high. One of the awful things, of course, is sending children to boarding school, a terrible thing to do. It emphasises the fact that father and mother are home, but you have to leave and get educated. I don’t like that.

You described attendance at the United Free Church as the greatest penance of the week. Why do you think you reacted so much against it when for most children it was a normal part of growing up in Scotland?

Two reasons. One was that I’m very susceptible to boredom; I can’t stand being bored, and I bore very easily. I regard it as the greatest penance in life. I’ve done a great deal to enquire into what makes a bore, because I find it a very interesting and underdeveloped study. The other reason was that what the minister said in his sermon was such rubbish, and he said it with such unction and with such certainty that I found it deeply offensive. But I couldn’t tell him. I just had to sit there and take it.

Your atheism caused quite a stir in the family. Have you ever had doubts about your atheism, if I can put it that way?

Never, no. It’s the foundation of my belief and thought. One of the great regrets for mankind is the delusion of religion; it’s done so much harm, it’s caused so many wars, so much hardship, so much intolerance. Even today one of the greatest threats is Islam. Many of the religions are running out of steam, which is good, and of course even though people get married in church and bury their fathers in the church graveyard, their actual faith is very weak. They pretend, but there is a lot of hypocrisy.

Do you think as you grow older you might change your mind about religion?

No, I don’t. I’m completely comfortable with the thought of dying, although one always hopes for a fairly peaceful and orderly exit. I mean, I have seen rabbits die, I have seen horses die, and I’ve seen men die; I think they cease to exist, and that’s it. It is a very deep human instinct to try and pretend there’s an after-life, because it’s consoling and people don’t like to think they’re going to be rubbed out. But they will; they will be rubbed out completely.

Was your lack of belief just another kind of challenge to your parents or was it a separate thing?

I think it was self-generated. I used to count all these messiahs who preceded Jesus Christ – there were seventeen of them – and I used to look at the incidence of virgin birth in other religions, and also crucifixion – the rarest of the lot – but nevertheless it was there. All the great phenomena of the Christian religion which are treated with such enormous respect are duplicated in other religions. People want it that way, therefore they believe in it. I’ve never been able to understand, for example, why people think God is good, but people want God to be good and so they believe in the goodness of God.

The effect of your lack of faith was quite traumatic for your parents, especially your mother. Did you come to regret that you hadn’t pretended to have faith, for her sake?

At the time I was deeply upset, but I felt it was inevitable. Sooner or later you have to come clean on issues that you really don’t feel it’s right to conceal, and I don’t think I regretted telling my parents what I did. Perhaps the way I did it was not very elegant; it certainly took them a long time to come back to having an affection for me. It really wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and was wounded that I rediscovered a warmth between my parents and myself. It took ten years.

Is there any way that the Presbyterian ethic had endured, albeit against your will, or have you managed comprehensively to reject it?

Many of the Presbyterian habits have afflicted or assisted me through life. For example, it took me a long time to throw the sexual taboos off. I felt guilty when indulging in any form of sex, and that was due to an upbringing which was extremely prudish, indeed to a degree you simply wouldn’t believe. On the positive side, the Presbyterian upbringing gave me a certain degree of stamina in thought. In the Scots Kirk you have to argue a thing through, even though it’s a ridiculous argument. That probably did assist me in later life to stick to a point of argument. The Presbyterian work ethic has bugged me all my life too; I find it very difficult not to work.

You say that by the age of nine you had reacted against the smugness of pure faith. Are you still reacting against that today?

Well, of course that smug attitude has diminished. It was prevalent in the Church of England, and also in the Church of Scotland – the idea that we ministers are superior people, we are God’s chosen people, we are here to tell you how to behave. Today the Church of England is grovelling around to curry favour with pop stars, so it has rather lost its smugness, not to mention its dignity. In my view, it is a little despicable the way they try to snatch whatever public fashion will make them seem up to date.

Do you think that smugness can ever attach itself to agnosticism or atheism?

Yes, it certainly can. You can be very self-righteous as an atheist or an agnostic. I would say that of all the Christian religions, Catholicism is obviously the most intellectually respectable, because a very sound thesis has been built and, provided you have the belief, it can be defended at all points since they’ve spent centuries working it out. But atheists haven’t spent centuries working things out; indeed every atheist has his own argument and his own beliefs. What I tried to do for several years was to find fellow spirits who could be put together a decent funeral service for non-believers, but it couldn’t be done, because there is no basis, there’s no common ethic, no common ground. It would be possible to write a funeral service for myself, but no one else is going to use it, or only very few.

You said you got on well with the farm workers – you like their directness, their strength, their endurance…did you really want to be one of them?

I suppose the short answer is yes, I did. They had a canniness, a sense of humour, a sense of perspective; they were the sort of people I wanted to be. Then I went away to school, which was a very disagreeable wrench, we sold this particular estate, but it was my ambition to buy it back, and until I was wounded I was determined to do so and to reorganize the farm and make it so much better than my father had it. I only gave up the idea because I thought – perhaps wrongly – that I ought to be able to do physically what the other men would be doing. Little did I think that farmers would come to sit in front of a computer for three weeks and then go and shoot partridges in Spain, which is what they do nowadays.

You knew you were different from the upper-class boys but you were also different from the workers – your accent marked you out if nothing else. Where did you feel you belonged exactly?

I was bilingual in so far as I could speak Lallans Scots as well as any of the farm workers – it was a completely different language. When I was with the farm workers I could speak well enough not to be identified as an upper-class person, though sometimes it went wrong. Once when I was with them cutting down a tree by the side of the drive, a car drew up and a chap jumped out and asked me if I could tell him where my father was. I replied in English: ‘He’s gone to Edinburgh to see an osteopath,’ and the farm workers all collapsed with laughter. They started imitating me and thought it the funniest thing. I was so ashamed, but I knew I couldn’t have spoken Scots to this guy because he had a bowler hat on.

You talk about the cynicism you developed perhaps as a defence against your upbringing, the idea that you would believe the worst of everyone, not the best. Did you manage to rid yourself of cynicism in later life?

In certain areas I have never been cynical – in the arts, for example. There I’ve been a total enthusiast, not one of those picky people who’ve tried to find something wrong all the time. I think my cynicism diminished with adolescence, and as I grew older I began to be an enthusiast about many things, a cynic about some, but only those concerned with class, religion and literature. I’ve always been leery of pompous people in literature. My cynicism was tempered finally by the army in which I was a wholehearted soldier. I though, rightly or wrongly, that the war was of critical importance to us, that we really were fighting for our lives and our freedom. That was my motivation, not any affection for military affairs, but once I was in the army I realized there was so much wrong with it that I had to buckle down and try to change it.

In your family there were various euphemisms for bodily functions, and mention of sex was absolutely taboo. Do you think that influenced your attitude later on? What I mean is, if there had been greater openness and honesty, would you have become a different person?

I know that I would have become a different person. I was inhibited until I was a mature man by this terrible legacy of prudery. I can’t explain why, but they managed to induce shame in anything to do with physical sex, and that association was so powerful and so deeply felt that I found I couldn’t shake it off for a very long time, not until I was thirty or forty. With religion one could shake it off quite easily, because it was cerebral, but the idea of sex was absolutely taboo.

Are you saying that until the age of thirty or so you were unable to have a sexual relationship?

Well, one had experiments but one was deeply ashamed of them, which sounds ridiculous now and almost unbelievable, but it’s true. One always started to feel uncomfortable, morally uncomfortable. I resented that. I didn’t see why I should have the hang-up when a lot of people around me didn’t.

You describe the process of divesting yourself of a myth and superstition as a very lonely business. Did you ever lose heart?

No, it wasn’t like that. It was a long business and very difficult and complex, but my interest and enthusiasm grew with knowledge. I never felt for one moment downhearted or that it was an impossible task. Sometimes I realized I’d been following the wrong line and that could be frustrating, but the actual fascination of the study itself didn’t impose any kind of feeling of irritation. In fact it was wonderful. This sounds a silly thing, but I felt so proud actually to have done this, with all the people around me not doing it; I had confidence that this was right and never had a shadow of a doubt.

You joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In your book about the war you say that an infantry officer had only two options in the Second World War – death or being wounded. Did you know that at the outset?

Not so, precisely, but it was a pretty good guess. When you were actually in action, you saw your cadre of officers turn over. It just stared you in the face.

You were wounded at Cassino and lost a leg, something you make light of in your book. Did you actually consider yourself lucky to come out of it alive?

Yes, I did. I got off lightly. In a way there wasn’t a worry about death at the time; in fact one felt almost that death was relief. Blindness was the worst, two limbs pretty bad, one limb, damn lucky.

You had some very complicated feelings about the business of war. Did you ever consider not fighting for your country, or did you see yourself as part of the effort to defeat evil, or what?

Absolutely unequivocally I saw a threat to our way of life. I feared the Nazi regime, and it was real fear. When you saw the power of the Wehrmacht, their organisation, their backup, their efficiency, and compared it to our amateur bunch who were still fighting the 1914-18 war, as it were, it was truly terrifying. I wanted to get in there to do everything I could to reform and rebel against the High Command and try and get some sense into infantry training. That was my main mission.

Did you find it difficult after the war to adapt to civilian life?

No, not a bit. I was sad not to be a farmer, but that didn’t last because I enjoyed other things so much. I enjoy nearly everything, and I sometimes wonder whether it’s a terrible fault. I had a wonderful time after the war.

What attitude did you adopt to disability?

Well, it sounds silly, but it didn’t bother me. It was awkward to get mobile enough to do what I wanted to do, but I instantly realized that certain things were out and I just shut them out of my mind. I was an athlete at Cambridge before the war and that had to go. Also I could no longer fish in waders or do highland dancing. But you immediately make your equation, decide what you can and can’t do.

The gramophone was very influential in your life and encouraged you to study music seriously. Was there something more to music than enjoyment? Did it seem to contain a truth that was lacking in everything else?

Music was always music. I’ve always regarded music as its own thing, in its own compartment, and I’ve never drawn any deductions from music to life. I mean, I think of music as an absolute. I know that operas have librettos and stories, but they are of secondary importance. I know that Kurt Weill was a communist, but that is quite separate. Music is enormously important in my life. I can’t tell anyone how important it is; it’s something I can’t put into words.

Why did you pick Mozart to write on? What is it about Mozart that fascinates you?

Music is very hard to talk about, but I regard Mozart as simply the best. In other composers I find great qualities and also considerable flaws, but Mozart’s top class works are for me pretty well perfection, as near perfection as you can get in this world. Mozart was so quick to learn, not like Beethoven, who was slow to learn and very often clumsy. Beethoven stumbled around and is sometimes a bit of a bore, but powerful, immensely powerful.

Are you keen on Wagner?

I have an enormous respect and liking for Wagner, but the minus side of Wagner is so enormous that to do an equation is almost impossible. His political and sexual kinkiness are definitely on the debit side. The basis of his political theory in the Ring is simply ghastly, as is the cheap stuff in Tannhäuser. The only decent plots are the Dutchman and Meistersinger which bring out a Wagner acceptable in words and music, but when you get to the Ring, what he is saying in words is pretty horrible and also extremely boring. The plus is the most amazing score ever produced, the greatest feat of imagination in the nineteenth century. It’s got that power to move which very few possess. There was a performance of Götterdämmerung at the Proms in the 1960s and when they finished, the whole of the Albert Hall applauded for twenty minutes. They just didn’t stop, so eventually the orchestra left, the conductor left, but the audience went outside and applauded for half an hour in the rain. That’s Wagner’s power.

You have been a director and deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Are you dismayed by the chaotic state of affairs at the moment?

Yes, I am. I think that the actual financial management is very poor. I don’t understand how they could have got into this particularly bad mess. When I was there we had our problems, and you could see ahead the possibility of having fewer assets than outgoings, but we took adequate action and we never had a cash crisis. If you can’t pay the wages, you’re in bad nick.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Royal Opera House?

Absolutely. Good institutions always survive. We are the most musical country in Europe bar none, and we must have a major opera house. There are enough people who have the influence, the power and the desire to see a great opera house here, and they will see that it happens.

Your latest book, Person Granada, charts the history of Granada Television of which you were a founding member. Would you say that Granada has remained true to its founding principles?

I don’t think anything remains true to its founding principles, including the Catholic Church. All institutions change with time and the idea that there are principles which are immutable is one of those follies of mankind. Once Mrs Thatcher came on the scene, a lot of principles went out of the window. Until her philosophy encroached upon it, television as set up in a way that it was your duty to provide public service programmes, and if you didn’t do it you had your licence taken away. When that disappears it becomes a free for all and everything becomes dictated by market forces. I have no regrets as far as Granada goes; it’s part of the general sea of change that’s taken place over the whole community.

But do you think these changes are for the good?

I don’t really believe in better or worse when it comes to changes. I believe that changes are inexorable and you adjust to them. They are absolutely inevitable…the tide comes in and then it goes out.

Well, do you think Mrs Thatcher was right to do what she did?

It was very much against what I would have liked, but it was a tide in human affairs, and she caught that tide. Whether it’s Napoleon, or the Pope, what they’re doing is riding a movement of what people are thinking, how humanity is changing. Thatcher caught that, and she jumped in the saddle just at the moment when the horse was going to run. I’d like to put a lot down to her, but she was only a pawn really in a much greater movement which I think was inevitable. How many of us now believe in the principles of the Labour government of 1945? I remember passionately believing in them, but pretty well every one of those principles has disappeared. Better or worse, I don’t know…principles are as mutable as opinions.

Granada had a reputation for first-class drama programmes right from the start. Why do you think that talented writers and programme makers were particularly drawn to Granada?

The people who ran the company understood writers, we were writers ourselves, or people who were musical, and artists responded to that, they know when they’re getting a sympathetic response. They know when the front office are bastards and when they’re friends, and we were friends. Simple as that.

Granada made its mark with outside broadcasts. You say at one point in the book that these outside broadcasts would now seem to us grotesquely primitive, and even then they were exceedingly boring. Would you say that today a great deal of news coverage, in its endless repetition and search for new angles, is also very boring, perhaps dangerously so, in the sense of numbing the mind?

Yes, I would. I’m very critical of the present standard of news, which is very low and very poor. There are elements in news that should not be there. Very often the news is simply a list of murders, accidents and rarely, very rarely is there any point beyond a general portfolio of crime and disaster. Crime is popular, but what the hell does it matter if someone is murdered, except to the police and the people directly involved? We make the mistake of regarding rape and murder as news, whereas in fact they are a form of rather salacious entertainment. There’s also an awful lot of people’s insides, and new genes that have been discovered. I wouldn’t say it was unhealthy, but it is again not news. The presentation is also very tedious, two newscasters who have been doing it for fifteen years. Sky News is better than BBC and ITN because they have fresh people, but otherwise it is terribly boring at the moment. They handle big stories fairly well, but all in the same sort of sermonizing voice, which is quite wrong now.

Isn’t the emphasis sometimes wrong, the coverage disproportionate?

Oh, crazy. But when the country has a fit of hysteria as it did over Diana, or minor hysteria as it had over Louise Woodward, it’s very difficult for the news editor to know how far to run with that hysteria. If he doesn’t run, he’s going to lose ratings, so there’s always a professional equation. The equation of favour is that you don’t get ratings by talking about people’s stomachs the whole time, or by reading a police gazette. News should be fun when it’s not serious. The present attitude by those rather boring people who run the news is to give a sort of mock Elgarian trumpet horn arrangement to introduce it. Who the hell wants a fanfare before the news?

Do people have an endless capacity for being bored? And should television recognize that and cater for it?

Boredom is really a fascinating topic. You can suck people into an exceedingly repetitious line of thought which deprives them of the capacity to reject it; that’s what boredom is, the couch potato variety. People are deprived of the power to say, oh Christ, let’s switch this off. They have somehow been brainwashed and conditioned into keeping that glazed look when something is happening on the screen which they don’t really care about at all. That sort of subconscious magnetic attraction doesn’t get a lot of ratings, but it will give you a fundament of ratings. People will sit watching without really knowing what the hell they’re watching.

Broadcasting, like publishing, used to be headed by giants, larger than life people who were supremely individual and often autocratic. For example, as you say in your book, Sidney Bernstein was extremely litigious, and given to rages, so that people were afraid to go against him. Is there room for a Sidney Bernstein or a Lew Grade in today’s very different industry?

No, it’s changed. Now you have enormous giants out of sight. Rupert Murdoch or Conrad Black – they’re not hands-on giants, they are giants who work in the background secretly and manipulate their staff and pull the strings. Another reason that broadcasting and publishing are now businesses, and they are run by people who are more accountants than impresarios. I was brought up in the impresario age, but the age of the impresario is over. What you get now is a committee looking at a proposal and a businessman saying, ‘It’s only going to deliver 4 per cent of profit.’ Once again, I don’t challenge change; it happens.

Your relationship with Sidney Bernstein did not always run smoothly. You had different origins and backgrounds – Sidney being the son of a Jewish immigrant tailor. Did that ever get in the way?

Absolutely not. I liked that Jewish, continental culture to which he belonged. Lew Grande had it too. I found them wonderfully quick people to work for, down to earth and very often funny. The Jewish sense of humour is wonderful. The differences between Sidney and me were those of two stags on the same hill; I was doing something that he had done before, and he did not really like to see the younger generation taking over. I think it was as simple as that; I felt that at the time, and I still feel that. If Sidney and I had not been very close friends, as we were before I started working, and as we were at the end. But we had our problems in the middle, because he resented what I did very much, and I resented his interference. He was a perfect pain in the arse.

Your comments about John Birt have received quite a bit of attention. After giving an account of how he squandered money on programmes which were never made, you rather damn him with faint praise…you seem very unimpressed by him.

Yes, I’m not impressed by John Birt. I think he is a nice man, and he has a certain ability, but both he and his employers have enormously overestimated that ability. The BBC is not a happy place, and it’s no good defending the license fee, and having all these wonderful new schemes if the place is unhappy and if the basis for making programmes is not a good one. The whole purpose of administration is to give the programme people a chance and to hell with everything else. They have to have enough money, they have to have a firm base, but this idea of accountability right, left and centre in everything is hopeless. Hugh Greene was a great director general and he kept that sort of thing down by force of personality and strength of character. If a minister or an MP criticized Hugh he would put him down by what he said and who he was; he didn’t need to keep working away, making friends with people in high places and producing new schemes and so on.

If I can quote from your book: ‘Even then John Birt had such a passionate belief in his own intellectual process that he could persuade others he was as clever as he believed himself to be, which was a matter open to some doubt.’ Do you think Birt is dangerous as well as deluded?

Not dangerous. I think he’s doing absolutely his best by his own lights, but his beliefs are misguided. In an institution like the BBC people are more important than anything else. People should look after other people, and those at the top will pick others as good as themselves so that the pyramid goes down, and at the bottom of the pyramid you have the producers working in a helpful climate. John Birt does not rate that as highly as I would. He wants the system to be right, to be efficient, he will spend hours, days, years trying to make it so, but he will not build the pyramid of people, he will concentrate only on the structures and the forms.

If, as you suggest, he has no talent for the management of people, how does it happen that such a man can be in charge of a creative organization?

It was a matter of fashion in a way. The BBC had a number of really outstanding personalities as its director general, and then there was a feeling, quite justified, that the spending got out of hand and there was money being wasted on a rather disgraceful scale. It needed tightening up and it needed a director general who would look at the economics. They got one. Meanwhile the poor buggers who struggle away making programmes are desperately unhappy, no question of that.

Of course John Birt is operating within a very different ethos from the one which characterized your days at Granada…this is an era of top-heavy management and accountants – the same has happened in publishing. Is John Birt just a product of the prevailing spirit?

He has adopted the fashion of the outside world, but the terrible thing is that there is no need to do so. You have to make a commercial profit everywhere else, but in the BBC you do not need to do so. As long as you organize your resources, your income and expenditure, you do not have to produce 25 per cent profit on capital or whatever the parameters are in business today; all you have to do is to get the housekeeping organized in such a way as to permit your programmes makers to do their very best. My belief always was that if you called in a consultant it meant failure; you had failed to solve the problem which you should have been able to work out for yourself. The consultant will in the end give you something you usually don’t want.

Which things, if any, would you say are better on television now?

Variety. Things are being channelled by subject – there are four sports channels, for example, and I think that’s good. At almost any time of the day or night you can see first class sport. I like the canalization of broadcasting. I think the BBC and ITV were very slow to see it come, and they still have hardly caught up with it.

If you were running television now, what would be your guiding principle?

Always to create circumstances to allow talented people to make the best possible programmes – it’s as simple as that. To let talent do what it wants with the minimum of interference.

I was rather surprised to discover that you are an admirer of Rupert Murdoch. What is the basis of this admiration?

Admirer is the wrong word. What I happen to be is a defender of Rupert Murdoch against people who totally malign him. Rupert’s responsibility for publishing a lot of the rubbish is criminal, but on the other hand, he’s absolutely straight, so when I hear him roundly condemned I always say this. He is reliable, he is honourable, and until recently I would have said he kept his contracts. The other thing is Wapping, which was a very brave thing to do, whether you approved or not. Even though I don’t like his publishing policy, I acknowledge that Rupert has done good things.

Isn’t it dangerous when too much power rests with one individual?

Yes. And so far every country who has tried to limit it has failed. To me it’s a comment on the fallibility of politicians, who are blackmailed into permitting this to happen for fear their own popularity will be impaired.

A recurring theme in your book is your passion for asking awkward questions. Has that got you into a lot of trouble in your life?

It’s got me into trouble with governments and sometimes with my superiors, but on the whole I would say it has been a profitable exercise. Asking awkward questions is an extremely important part of negotiating your way through life. If you put diplomatic demeanour ahead of getting results you’re a goner. I would do anything not to be bullied by the politician or the editor who usually says something is against the interests of the nation, or if you publish that story the country is going to lose millions of pounds. It’s invariably absolute rubbish. The last resort is the official secrets act; people who want to stop a programme always cite the official secrets act. I don’t believe there is any security matter today that merits censorship. Northern Ireland, terrorism and the drugs scene require a degree of secrecy, but the idea of national security is total rubbish. There is nothing to be secure about – the Russians always knew more than we did anyway.

Would you say you are a contented man?

Contented with my own lot, but I thrive on discontent. To be critical and constantly searching for improvements is necessary for a fulfilling life. There are angry old men, just as there are angry young men. While I’m not so very angry, I’m still alert to a feeling of things being abused or going wrong. I’m constantly feeling I want to pick up my pen, and though I don’t usually do it, there is a mental letter going on most days. I don’t feel in the least serene.

ADDICTED TO CASHMERE…

I was rather surprised to read recently that cashmere, the classic woollen wear, whose fortune has dipped in recent years, is now back – with demand for cardigans, scarfs and hats soaring last Christmas, according to John Lewis.
The department store chain, which stocks cashmere in 71 colours, said shoppers were prepared to buy it as a treat because it proves to be of long lasting quality. It also said husbands and boyfriends had been snapping up its range as an ideal present for wives and girlfriends.

The chain sells cashmere scarfs for £55, with its jumpers priced at £99. Its most expensive item in the range is a black cashmere jacket costing £499. John Lewis claim it stocks one of the widest ranges of goods made from the material on the high street.

Cashmere, originating In India, is synonymous with luxury wealth and comfort. It is obtained from cashmere goats whose coats are finer and softer than sheep’s wool. It was Napoleon who introduced the fabric to Europe in the 1800s, when his wife arrived in Paris wearing it.

It takes the wool of three goats to make just one cashmere scarf, meaning it has a premium price tag. But as well as looking good, it’s also guaranteed to keep you cosy.

Cashmere is said to be eight times better at keeping you warm to ordinary wool, but it is also far more lightweight, meaning it can be worn in autumn through to spring.

I have always regarded cashmere as a luxury item which makes the wearer feel good and very comfortable. I am addicted to its impeccable softness and variety of colour. My favourite shop, which stocks a great variety of cashmere, is in Knightsbridge where its range is extraordinary and very hard to resist.

If you happen to appreciate quality and service you won’t do better than visit this friendly store which, I am sure, will fulfil all your needs. Appropriately called The Cashmere Shop, at 43 Brompton Road, it is well worth your visit and is always a pleasure.

DR FOSTER WENT TO GLOUCESTER…

The use of slang in the English language is becoming so popular that the weather forecast will soon be expressed in terms which would be better understood in the various regions that appreciate its use and enhance its colourful meaning. When it’s raining heavily in the Black Country, it’s ‘bucketing’; in Birmingham, it’s ‘tipping down’, but if you’re up North it’s more likely to be ‘chucking it.’ For a country obsessed with the rain it’s no surprise the UK’s regions all have their own slang to describe the weather. And soon each area’s identity may be reflected by the national forecaster. The Met Office is set to consider using regional slang in its local broadcasts. The weather service is launching a scheme that could incorporate idioms to make bulletins seem simpler and more accessible.

It is appealing for keen weather watchers to submit their local terms so it can create a glossary to add character to regional forecasts. The initiative came following a survey of 2000 people which found disparities between how we describe the weather. It discovered more than half of those in the Black Country use ‘bucketing’ to describe heavy rain, where 6 in 10 people in Leeds would say ‘chucking it down’. Londoners prefer the term ‘canning it,’ while those in Birmingham and Bristol use ‘tipping it down.’ Overall, ‘pouring’ was the most popular term nationally.

Derreck Ryall, Head of the Public Weather Service at the Met Office said: ‘The range of slang for rain alone demonstrates the breadth and diversity of the English language and the varying terminology used across the UK. As the UK national weather service we are always looking to improve the way weather forecasts are communicated, to make them as useful as possible and increase their understanding. It’s not just dialects that make a region distinct but also people’s sense how cold it is.’

The survey, conducted by Vital last month, found two-fifths of Londoners describe a temperature of 15 centigrade (59 Fahrenheit) in January as cold, but three-quarters of those in East Anglia, Wales and the South West thought it was warm. It also revealed that respondents struggle to interpret weather symbols. More than half wrongly interpreted the sun symbol, which indicates bright clear skies, as hot or warm weather. Only 14 per cent where able to identify the symbol for sleet.

The Met Office is launching a project on Twitter asking people to describe the weather in three words. The information will be used to compare regional phrases to see if there are better ways to express the forecast. Mr Ryall added: ‘We have used a set of symbols and vocabulary to describe the weather for over 40 years and it’s important they are still relevant. It’s become apparent from recent studies that different regions interpret language and information uniquely.’

Personally, I have often used the term ‘pissing down’, perhaps a vulgar expression, but one understood in all regions.

No Longer With Us

SIR HARDY AMIES

Hardy Amies was born in London in 1909-2003. After studying languages in France and Germany he trained as a weighing-machine salesman in Birmingham before entering the world of design. In the 1930s he rose to become one of Britain’s leading couturiers. During the war he served as an intelligence officer in the SEO and in 1946 he founded his own fashion house. His salon is one of the few left in Britain to rival the great dress houses of Paris. He is dressmaker by appointment to Queen Elizabeth and he was knighted in 1989.

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I interviewed him in 1991 and here is the substance of what he told me then.

In your autobiography you record that there was no marked display of affection in your childhood. Was that something you were aware of at the time or did it occur to you only on mature reflection?
I was never ware of it. I have the feeling of having had loving parents who were not demonstrative; I have no feeling of ever having been deprived of affection.

Were they ambitious for you?
Yes, my mother particularly so – and fortunately she lived just long enough to see the glimmering of the first success.

Yet in your book you make a point of avoiding discussing the relationship with your mother. Why is that?
I don’t know. I actually got on better with her than I did with my father, though he was a most affectionate man, and we didn’t get on badly by any means, but in the long run he wasn’t very bright, and she was brighter. My mother had what is laughingly called taste – of course it was restricted to suburban taste, her life being very circumscribed. She was a village girl, but because of the years that she’d spent in a court dressmaker’s she could recognize a real lady, and how she behaved, and she respected that.

Your brother who was Down’s Syndrome ‘coloured your childhood’ as you put it. Did you resent the amount of attention and care he required?
Not in anyway whatsoever. It’s only looking back that I realize that it must have been a tremendous strain on my mother and on the resources of my father. But I wasn’t conscious of that at the time, and I never had any feelings of disappointment. We loved him – Down’s Syndrome children are always loveable – and later I inherited responsibility for him when my parents died, but by that time he had been in a home for several years.

You left the family circle at the first opportunity, and though you insist there was nothing ‘unpleasant’ about your upbringing, one has the impression that yours was not a very happy childhood…
I was certainly pursued by lack of money, but although that imposed huge restrictions, we were not on the poverty line. Overall, I think we were happy.
Your mother’s death seems to have been a terrible blow. What are your memories of that time?
She had been ill with cancer for so long that there was an element of relief; it was only afterwards that I was moved.

Your father remarried within a short time, and both you and your sister seem to have disapproved of his second wife. Why was that?
Although she was a goodhearted woman she was socially very inferior to our standards, which is an awfully snobbish thing to say, but it’s true. As in most families the daughter is closer to the father, and so my sister minded more than I did. She was at first jealous of this really hideous woman. She was so ugly apart from anything else.

Then why did he marry her?
I wouldn’t care to go into the details. I now realize that my father was a very sexy man, and obviously she had certain tricks which satisfied him.

You are very close to your sister Rosemary…is she the most important person in your life?
Yes. I’m six years older than she is, rather bossy, and frankly, much cleverer than she is, something she has always admitted herself. There are strains which are difficult to articulate. I am very conscious of my responsibility towards her, but one of the difficulties is that she is, I think, sexless, in the sense of not really being interested in sex, although she has had sentimental attachments to women. Consequently, she’s never really understood my life which perplexes her still. It’s difficult for her to accept that I have male friends, though there are some who have always been in my life and with them she had made friends, I’m happy to say.

She hates it when people call you effeminate.
Yes. I am able to laugh at it, because I’m not really effeminate at all. In fact I would loathe to be a woman. Another difficulty is that she accuses me of not liking women; and that is true to an extent. I like them as artistic figures, as a sculptor likes his clay, but on the whole I despise their minds.

So you feel more comfortable in the presence of men.
Yes. It’s not that I don’t want women in my life – I’m very happy to have them around. But we’re in danger of getting on to sex, which I said we weren’t going to talk about.

In the early 1930s when you were in Germany you were a great enthusiast for Hitler – like, of course, a great many other people then, before the direction of his interests became clear. Were you very disillusioned?
The disillusionment came gradually. The family with whom I stayed welcomed Hitler as a saviour of the middle classes and the aristocracy, and I simply went along with them and didn’t question their judgement. A much greater influence in my life at that time was the manager of the local factory, a north German, an extremely orderly man, who, I now realize, was very attracted to me. He was an intelligent, politically clear-thinking man, who favoured the Nazis to begin with, but changed in the course of events, and by the time I left he was very disillusioned.

Have you ever taken a serious interest in politics since then? Have you ever joined a political party?
No. I’m only interested from the outside. Our local MP is Douglas Hurd, and I go to his meetings out of politeness to him. Also, before the last election I couldn’t bear the thought of the socialists winning, so I wanted to give him all the help I could.

I doubt whether it’s generally known that you were part of the special forces during the last year. That would seem improbable to those with stereotypical ideas of a dress designer. Did you enjoy that period of your life?
Not really. I considered myself lucky to have spent the major part of the war in a branch of the War Office in London. Unless I was on duty, which was about once a month, I had every Sunday and half of Saturday free and was generally home by 6’oclock. This enabled me to keep my hand in the dressmaking world. I still suffer from a bad conscience from that time, however, since I think I ought to have resigned because I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I didn’t think the idea of dropping parachutists into occupied countries was working; I suspected always that we were so infiltrated that we dropped people straight into enemy hands. I considered the whole operation tremendously amateurish and I started to feel quite cynical about things.

Did you always want to be a dressmaker?
No, I never thought about it. It always seemed something so remote from out lives, in spite of my mother. And in those days there were no designers in England; clothes were bought in Paris. It wasn’t until I had an offer from the husband of my mother’s boss that I suddenly thought, my God, this of course is what I want to do.

I imagine that a lot of people not in the business regard dress design as a frivolous affair. Does that bother you?
No. I am not aware that people regard it in that way. On the contrary, they are always amazed to hear about how much I earn for the country. At the time I joined the profession it was becoming socially acceptable, so I profited from that development.

How on earth did you manage to set up any sort of business, let alone a fashion house, at a time of such terrible austerity?
The war was a long time starting and it was a long time finishing. Churchill wanted unconditional surrender, which horrified me in view of my German connections. But during the time it dragged on I had the chance to lay down plans. I felt no guilt, since I didn’t take any hours off, just my full allowance of free time. Then my darling stepmother gave me a thousand pounds, which was quite a lot of money in those days. I had ten thousand pounds when I started, and we made ten thousand pounds profit during the first year. There was actually no feeling of austerity; everybody wanted new clothes. The Americans were the ones who really encouraged us, because they were on my doorstep before we even had the clothes – in fact they bought them form paper patterns. I opened on 1 February 1946, and by April I was in America at their expense.

In an interview with Richard Rosenfeld you used terms like ‘smarty pants’ with some affection and talked about the ‘gentry’. Did you feel very conscious of social divisions when you began? You appeared to adore the smart set.
Yes, I knew that I had to get on. Looking back, I learned the language of English upper class just as I’d learned German and French. The London upper class is like a club and I am always amazed when I am admitted as a member. And I’m so very pleased, because one meets much more interesting people. Sometimes I see others in the same business and I think, how naff you are. I’m not naff, but I easily could have been.

You describe yourself as a self-confessed snob. Have you no qualms about that at all?
No. I am a staunch supporter of the class system. I uphold it out of conviction; it’s the best of England, no question about it.

Don’t you have a commercial incentive to say that?
Of course, the commercial side suits me very well, but there are two more important reasons. Firstly I have a happier life for being a snob because I have a wide circle of friends, and the top people are far more interesting than the bottom people. Secondly, I’m very keen on English history and have an above average knowledge of it, certainly above average for a dressmaker. I have also lived in Germany, and I am perfectly at home in France, and I know how much both these countries would love to have a queen. The French and German aristocracies are clubs within themselves; they are self-supporting, but there’s no top.

So you’re a great supporter of the monarchy?
I would die for it. I really would take out a gun and go and shoot people if they ever threatened it. It’s one of our most precious assets. To destroy it would be the most wicked thing. I say this not just because I admire the present Queen. I would still support the monarchy even if we had a bad queen, heaven forfend that we did. It’s the idea I defend; primogeniture is order – it’s God.

You design dresses for the Queen. How important is that to you?
I’m really a supplier, a fournisseur, a furnisher of clothing to her. She accepts my advice if it suits her to do so. Her guiding principle in ordering clothes is that they shall be appropriate to the occasion for which she wants them. Not that she has explained all that to me – it’s something I sense. She has supremely good manners.

You clearly have great admiration for her.
Enormous, and for many reasons – her politeness, the order of her mind, the way the palace is run, the way she has never failed to keep an appointment.

I suppose there is a sense in which the fashion business depends on a certain sort of snobbery, on the urge to be differently and better dressed than others.
I don’t think there’s an urge of any consequence. Our customers simply want to be comfortable and correctly dressed for the occasion. There is sometimes a competitive element, most evident when mothers are choosing a dress for their daughter, and want it to be better than the one they saw on their friend’s daughter. But the competitiveness is not so strong in their ordinary buying; in many cases they don’t want to stand out, they just want to be comfortably acceptable.

You have promoted an ‘English style’. What do you think are its characteristics?
The main characteristics of the English style is that it has to have something to do with the country. A well-dressed, well-bred English-woman is at her best when she looks as though she has either just come up from the country or is just going back there. Urban clothes are better made by the French. Another feature is a certain nonchalance – a word invented in my studio. We abhor the dressed-up look, and we’re not good at what is called dead chic – mort chic – that’s not our line of country. There also has to be a curious timelessness about English clothes, because it’s not good style to wear a new dress. My favourite duchess gave a very important private ball for which she wore a twenty-five-year-old dress. She had a new dress made by me for the servants’ ball which took place the day before so the servants could not say that her grace was wearing an old dress. But for her own proper ball she wore an old dress and she looked marvellous. That is English style at its best.

Do you think of your designs as artworks? After all, they are clearly works of the imagination…
Absolutely not. I look on them as the work of an artisan. I don’t like going to museums where they have collections of garments which have usually been designed for one particular occasion, then put away. My clothes are worn out and do not appear in museums.

I suppose dress designing is so personal a service that you become closely acquainted with some of your customers, a bit like a portrait painter…
That’s not quite true. I have seen very few of my customers over forty years. Don’t forget the structure of the house which dictates that clients are seen by a vendeuse who does more than just sell; she serves the customer and waits on her and guides her through all the fittings, and very often becomes her friend. I like to retire and leave it to her. It is also a question of using up time and energy; I love to see my customers, but if my business were based on their always having to see me, I’d have been dead years ago. I don’t even see the Queen anymore

I have always wondered quite how it is that fashions change in the way they do. It never seems to be the case that things are suddenly and radically different. Do you think there is some sort of revolutionary law which governs it?
Fashion changes much less than you think. The idea of it changing is one promoted by newspapers which find it a very good way of filling a page. The women I know, not only my own customers but in my life generally, change the length of their skirts by perhaps one inch per season. Good expensive clothes for ladies don’t actually date. I recently went to a very high-class wedding in Scotland and saw five different women wearing coats which were ten years old. I felt proud of that.

And they looked smart?
They looked correct. There is a difference. It’s a difference the Queen understands; she knows being too smart implies something hard. The Duchess of Windsor on the other hand is dressed too smartly.

You said once that you can always tell when a lady’s got style – ‘You have only to see her in her underclothes to appreciate that.’ Perhaps you’ve been luckier than I have, but how else can you tell…I mean, what constitutes style?
I think the word is insouciance. You must never show that you are impressed by your own clothes, or have that ‘Don’t I look wonderful?’ expression. You must never be conquered by your clothes; style is to be master of your clothes. When you see women in their underwear they must be immaculate. I take a rather old-fashioned view since most ladies of great style nowadays wear Marks and Spencer underwear, but I prefer the undergarment to be of beautiful quality, superbly hand-made, and extremely plain. Frilly underclothes constitute extremely bad style.

There are now design schools and indeed art schools with sections devoted to clothes design. Do you think it is actually possible for the industry to sustain the current numbers of designers?
No. A very wise question. Firstly I deplore the fact that there are design departments in art schools; it gives them quite the wrong idea, because clothes design is not art, it’s craftmanship. They even give degrees now which is totally idiotic. In my view a dress is not a dress until it has been sold; before that it’s just a rough sketch, a suggestion. There must be the desire for a woman to possess it, to pay money for it, and that philosophy is sadly lacking in the art schools. Secondly there has definitely been a decline in the teaching of craft. There should be more prizes for craftmanship rather than design. What we lack are trained craftsmen and craftswomen, not designers. There are too many designers.

Fashion will I suppose become more and more international, especially with the advent of the Common Market at the end of this year. Will there be room for distinctive national differences? Indeed, is it possible now to see that a particular dress is French or Italian?
If it looks vulgar it has a good chance of being Italian as distinct from French. But that is an unattractive remark.

You have been outspoken, if not scathing, about women in design. Why is it that there are so few well-known women designers? One would have thought that they were the obvious source for ideas and yet many of the more famous designers seem to be men.
Men are objective, women are not – about clothes, or indeed anything else. The one outstanding exception was Chanel, and it is extraordinary how her influence is still felt today. But she had a man’s mind and was very disciplined in her designs. Also a designer of high-class expensive clothes cannot exist alone; he has to have a team with him, and this is what is forgotten by most people, and certainly not appreciated by the press. I am here today at the age of eighty-three because I have support, and in three years’ time my house will have been fifty years in existence. I am the boss, and men make better bosses than women do. Because we’re more intelligent.

Twenty years ago you were saying that couture business was really finished; it was too labour intensive to make any money. But it still seems to be going. How long do you think such business might continue?
Well, we lose money at the moment, but if we are clever enough to earn in other fields, in licensing fees, in design labels, and in using our studio intelligently, then I think we will win through.

Have you ever designed clothes to be provocative?
Not consciously. They are sometimes seductive, but not provocative. If a dress is too sexy it’s a bad dress, I’ve always said.

At one point you sold a considerable share in your business to Debenham’s only to buy it back again later on. Why did you feel it was necessary to do that? Did they try and control your creative output?
No, they didn’t do that. The disadvantage was essentially in having new bosses, in fact in having bosses at all, since I’d always been totally independent. When they bought us they promised to do two things: one was to help launch a women’s ready-to-wear business which would have had the marvellous platform of Debenhams’s sixty shops; secondly they were going to launch a proper scent business – but they did neither. And in addition we had the aggravation of being bossed by them. There was blatant jealousy towards me, and it was also quite clear to them that they couldn’t control me. Though I had no shares in the business most of the contracts were in my name – Japan, for example, would never have given contract to Debenham’s, the would only give it to Hardy Amies. This irked them, but in the end it always comes down to personalities, and the personalities at Debenham’s were inferior. When it all came to a head and they wanted me to do something which I wouldn’t do, they said – and the words still ring in my ears – ‘If you don’t do this, Hardy, we’ll cut you up into little pieces,’ meaning they would destroy me. I thought it was time to part company, so a favourable price was arranged and I bought myself back.

The recession continues to bite despite all the government talks. I imagine that the fashion business must feel the force of that very early…
When there is a recession people buy wisely. If a woman is prepared to spend £2,500 on a suit, she knows she is buying the best possible value. So the recession hits shoddier merchandise than ours. We suffer a little bit, but my retail figures for the last year are down only ten per cent, which is not too bad, and the overseas revenue is up.

You never married. Was that a conscious decision or was it just that the right circumstances never occurred?
It never occurred to me that I would marry. I did once get engaged to a girl, but I cannot think why; it certainly wasn’t because I wanted to go to bed with her. I thought perhaps she would make a good wife to me, but she was sensible enough to say no. I have been quite content and self-contained in the way I have lived, and I’ve never felt lonely for one minute. I have my sister, and I love having friends around. Ken Fleetwood who has been with me for forty-two years and is now the design director of my business comes to my country house fifty weekends out of fifty-two. We are not lovers, but he is like a son to me in the broadest sense.

Abut three years ago I interviewed Harold Acton who is a confirmed bachelor, but when I asked him if he had ever desired a woman, he said that he had, and indeed had a penchant for oriental women. Have you ever desired a woman?
No. I’m tremendously physical but I can’t say I have ever desired a woman. I love flesh, I’m very tactile, very ‘MTF’ – Must Touch Flesh. I actually love touching women for the pleasure of it, to hold their hands, to stroke their arms, and I love beautiful women. It gives me immense pleasure to dress a woman to perfection. You can’t do it to a man because he just looks a pratt, a bloody fool. So curiously enough whilst I am obviously attracted to men more than I am to women, I still think it is idiotic to dress a man. I’ve always said a man should order his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forget all about them.

You have, I believe, made arrangements to leave your fashion house to your employees. Certainly a very generous gesture, but I wonder if you have ever regretted not having had children to come after you?
It never crossed my mind. In fact I’m very grateful I haven’t got children. The children of men in the dress business all seem to want to be lawyers or bankers, they never want to follow their fathers. When I see the trouble and responsibilities that children bring, I don’t regret not having had children for one moment.

How would you sum up your recipe for success?
I’ve worked hard, not desperately hard, but I’ve always done my duty and I have a conscience about not doing the right thing. I have also had an amazing amount of luck. Perhaps the most significant factor was my three years on the road as a salesman selling weighing machines; it was not a very happy existence, but I did it and created an aura of orderliness and of dutifulness which somehow stood me in good stead. If I hadn’t done my duty with this rotten job I would never have got the good one.

I understand Molyneux was your god, why is that?
Firstly because he was an Englishman, secondly he had extremely good taste in clothes. He believed in simplicity, as I do. All good clothes are totally unfussy. The first dress I ever saw of his was the simplest possible garment that just buttoned up the front, but it was absolutely impeccably made in beige linen with black buttons. And I learned that lesson and I follow it to this day. Although I can’t draw, I have a gift of being able to see a garment from a piece of cloth. There are glib designers, little boys wo can draw, make a little sketch, but they never seriously think of it, as I do. When I’m working on an article I think about it all the time, and then it takes me ten minutes to write it, because it’s already written in my head. Although I don’t want to compare myself with a genius, this is exactly what Mozart did. On the way to Prague he was thinking about what he was going to write when he got there, and then he sat down and wrote the overture to Don Giovanni in ten minutes.

How important is a beautiful face for the success of a dress?
A beautiful face helps tremendously, but the real challenge for the designer is to give a woman grace; it’s what I call honouring cloth – you mustn’t foul it up. No seam is ever attractive, so you must have a minimum of seams, then you have to achieve a certain skill of disguise. A woman of a certain age does not have an attractive bosom, and anyway to show the bosom too markedly is common; to disguise is very important. Then you indicate the waist by the position of the buttons, rather than by nipping it in – the cloth must not be fucked up.

At the age of eighty-three you seem very fit. What is your secret?
Homeopathy is very important in my life. I’m not fanatical about it but I will use a homeopathic remedy if I possibly can. I haven’t taken an aspirin for fifty years. And tennis is a very good cosmetic. I play an hour’s tennis on Saturday and Sunday, and for the rest of the week people tell me how well I look.

I read somewhere that you’re not in the least afraid of death.
No. You’re just going into nothing, so why should you be frightened of nothing? I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe in the existence of God, but it could have been any other name – nature, for example, or order. I think there’s something that was put into our minds, and the question is, why the fuck are we here? I don’t know the answer, but there is something we want to order, but the order is gone when you’re dead, totally gone. And I don’t mind it. I was meant to have a life, not a death.

A lot of people who are not religious in their youth, trend to become more religious with advancing years.
I don’t have that feeling at all. My sister, being six years younger, thinks I’m going to die before her, and she would like to have a funeral for me. I quite agree, because I don’t know of any other way of doing it. These non-denominational affairs are too awful for words. I’d rather have the whole thing, incense and choir, the lot. But this is nothing to do with fear, nothing to do with getting on the right side of God, not remotely.

And nothing to do with conviction?
No. It’s toujours la politesse. It’s good manners.

You were knighted in 1989. After the long association with the royal family did you not think this was a somewhat belated honour?
No. It never crossed my mind. I still think it’s the biggest stroke of luck. Queen Victoria founded the Royal Victorian Order for services to the sovereign. I don’t think she ever intended it for dressmakers.

You’ve had two books published now. Has that been a rewarding experience?
Publishers have one serious fault and this it that they never read anything. [Laughs.] You just know they haven’t read the bloody book. George Weidenfeld is quite an inspiring man to help you make a book, but I don’t think he’s terribly interested. In any case I think my books are pretty dull in the end because they’ve got so many tactful omissions. Men should never have women editors because they don’t understand how men’s minds work. Diana Mosley was so funny when she said apropos of publishers that they all keep a troupe of Nigerians in their cupboards and when they edit a book they bring one out of the cupboard and give her a stub pencil. Women always bring in irrelevances. They’re illogical creatures. Even Mrs Thatcher is a typical example, quite illogical, doesn’t follow it through. She also imitates an upper-class voice which is the biggest grating thing that anybody can do. The voice is the key to the class system in England; once a man or woman opens his or her mouth you know what his or her class is. True scots accents, or Lancashire, or Manchester, they’re lovely; what is awful is the whine, the Walthamstow whine.

You’re a very emotional man. Have you ever fallen madly in love?
Oh yes…every week, mostly with the milkman. [Laughs.]

How would you like to be remembered?
I would like people to say, oh we miss him, he was such fun. I like laughing with people more than anything in the world. Life is a joke, a big joke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS…

I was surprised to read in December of last year that stress hits women harder than men, having always reckoned that women are more resilient to stress, due to their physical constitution because childbirth makes them much stronger to pain than the male. But now we are told by doctors that stress is more damaging to women’s hearts than it is to men’s.

They warn that women with heart disease should try to protect themselves from becoming tense and envious because they put themselves more at risk of problems such as a heart attack. In women, mental stress constricts small blood vessels supplying blood to the heart – starving it of oxygen. But in men, mental stress was not found to restrict the blood supply in the same way. Instead, it was found to increase blood pressure and heart rate making the heart work harder. It is not clear however why the differences between the sexes exist.

Dr Viola Vaccarino of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia said: ‘This research is important because previous studies have shown that a reduction in blood supplied to the heart (they call it ischemia) during mental stress doubles the risk of heart attack or death from heart disease. This increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events is about the same level as that seen in people who develop reduced blood flow in the heart muscle during a conventional test, such as a treadmill stress test.’

The US findings were based on texting 678 adult men and women, all of whom were over 63 and suffering from heart disease, who had to deliver a speech while researchers measured their blood pressure and heart rate. The scientists also took scans of their hearts and measured how much blood vessels in their fingers contracted. The researchers found marked differences in how stress affected men and women. In females, constriction of tiny peripheral blood vessels in reaction to mental stress was linked to the reduced blood supply. This caused an increase in afterload – the force the heart must use to pump blood so it is pushed into the constricted blood vessels – which is linked to heart damage. But in men, there was a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, which had a different effect – making the heart work harder.

Dr Vaccarino said: ‘Our findings in the peripheral circulation also could reflect what occurs in the arteries in the heart. Instead of dilating and increasing blood flow to the heart during stress, in women the tiny blood vessels are constricted, leading to areas of reduced blood flow.’ She added: ‘Constriction of peripheral vessels can also induce ischemia in the heart indirectly because the heart has to pump against increased resistance.’ For those with heart disease, these results emphasise the importance of finding ways to reduce psychological stress and its potential impact on the body, researchers said.

Dr Vaccarino continued: ‘Women with heart disease need to know that they may be vulnerable to the effects of mental stress and think about ways to protect their hearts such as relaxation techniques and physical exercise.’ The authors said the findings added to the understanding of mental stress to related heart damage because previous studies had mainly focused on men. They also said they hoped the findings will identify methods to treat stress related heart disease. The research was published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Muscular Biology, an American Heart Association journal.

Earlier research has found mental stress heart damage can lead to a doubling of the chance of heart attacks and death. Previous studies have also shown that mental stress has been found to be a separate risk factor to heart damage by that caused by physical stresses.

I find that these sorts of researches enhance our knowledge of the human body, which very often vary between that of men and women to perhaps the ultimate benefit of both.

UNACCOMPANIED MINOR

The Sunday Herald in Scotland gave the task to Brian Beacom, senior features writer on the newspaper, to interview Alexander Newley and talk to him at length about growing up with his mother, Joan Collins, and his father, Anthony Newley – the subject of his autobiography, Unaccompanied Minor, published recently by Quartet Books to considerable critical acclaim.

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Reading this latest interview, however, I was impressed by its range to the degree that I decided to make it the subject of today’s blog. It clearly shows the book’s quality, and the way the interview skilfully got the author to speak freely of his childhood and his difficult, yet loving, relationship with both famous parents.
Here’s the interview in its entirety:

JUST 20 seconds into the chat with the son of showbiz luminescents Joan Collins and Anthony Newley, it’s already time to call him out. Alexander Newley has gone all lovely and gushing about his early life in Hollywood, suggesting it was one long series of rides on Steve McQueen’s handlebars, of playing pool with James Caan and watching the likes of Paul Newman and Billy Wilder soak up the poolside sun. “It was fun,” says the artist-turned-writer, in upbeat tone as he talks of the second half of the sixties. “My parents were both big performers, big personalities.”

Whoah, there, Alexander. Fun? In your autobiography (and nicely written it is too) you mentioned you almost drowned during one of those star-soaked pool parties. There was your mother – “weaving, diaphanous in floating colours, taking the temperature of every huddled conversation” – but neither she nor your father noticed your two-year-old self had flipped over in the splash for the longest time. It took your mother’s scream and the party to freeze before your father also saw what had happened and dive in to the rescue.

“You’re right,” says Newley, projecting a little laugh from his studio in northwest London. “There are some downbeats in the piece. But I think any child would have had those in his life. Mine may have been just a tad more amplified because it seemed like everything then was so much more intense; the houses, the places, the people, all so heightened.”

Alexander Newley, nicknamed Sacha when he was a young boy, was born in 1965 when his parents were both arm-wrestling for work in Hollywood. It really wasn’t a great time for him to decide to become their son. Joan Collins was having sporadic success, landing guest shows such as Star Trek and small film roles, her melodramatic performances often a little large for the decade. (Her style would later re-emerge in the Dynasty era.) Meanwhile, Anthony Newley had been a major West End theatre star and a successful songwriter but his full-blown characters didn’t really lend themselves to film at all.

Collins and Newley were also very different creatures. She loved the party circuit, a woman high on life and people and attention while Newley was more often insular and high on chemicals. They both craved fame, yet while Collins would work pretty much anywhere, Newley believed himself a showbiz – and a sexual – adventurer. While working in Vegas for the Mob, women were dropped off to him the way other men ordered a takeaway. His appetite for women and E-Type Jags was insatiable.

In 1969, Newley made his autobiographical film Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness? “It was a balls-out confession in which he rakes over his entire life, recasting it as a grail quest for the perfect piece of ass,” says his son. It was to signal the end of his parents’ marriage. Collins, who had dumped Robert Wagner to take up with the mercurial, often brilliant Newley, realised she could never compete with the streams of very young hopefuls auditioning for the job of her husband’s lover. (She later maintained her ex-husband’s partners were 17 and upwards). The chances of Newley and Collins going the distance were non-existent.

Meantime, Alexander and his older sister Tara were looked after, for the most part, by a nanny. They f*** you up, your mum and dad, don’t they Alexander? “Yes, they did,” says the talented portrait artist whose work is heavily displayed in the book. And he tells one story of how he was being “supervised” by the nanny but had climbed up a tree. His mother called out to ask where little Sacha was, and the nanny said she was keeping an eye on him. She was. But he was still up the tree, and his mother simply accepted that. “I know,” he says, anticipating the question. “My mother didn’t always get it right. But the idea of doing the book engendered lots of conversations. It was cathartic to write it all down. More than anything you give order to your past. It’s also a way of leaving it behind. But it’s an ongoing process.”

Alexander Newley has had a lot to process. With a highly-sexed father and a sex-goddess mother he grew up surrounded by beautiful women such as Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon. He watched Hollywood cavort. But did the experience leave him, well, normal? “The sixties were a different time,” he explains, smiling. “Very permissive. Very joyous. And people began to look great with fantastic clothes and drugs came in. My father was at the epicentre of all that. My mother was an object of great desire, so I was surrounded by beautiful people and I guess I absorbed that.”

The world was beautiful but no-one was behaving beautifully. Newley’s father, a songwriter who came up with over 40 hits including Goldfinger and Candy Man (he later influenced David Bowie) was, in fact, full of self-loathing. “I think he was an artist first and an entertainer second,” his son explains. “And in the seventies, he was more an artist. Nowadays, more people want to know about him then.”

In 1969, the marriage over, Joan Collins moved back to London with her children to boost her career. Young Sacha was wrecked by the arrangement. “The world wasn’t so small in those days. You didn’t have Skype. But when I (later) saw my dad he had amazing capacity to make up for the absences and fill them to overflowing.” He adds: “I still feel so close to him. His presence was so massive. He was one of those people who, like Sammy Davis, could walk into a room and change the voltage. It’s charisma. But as a kid you feel it.”

Yet, while Collins had had enough of her husband’s flings with (much) younger girls, she never gave up on him. The book includes a letter from Collins to Newley. It’s poignant and touching, reflecting the sadness of their marriage break-up. You don’t have to read too hard between the lines to know she wanted to get back with the often abominable showman. However, her son was well aware this wasn’t likely to happen, given his father’s appetites – and the fact his mother wouldn’t be on her own for too long. Collins’s Achilles’ heel was she needed a man in her life at all times and soon segued into a relationship with record producer Ron Kass.

The children weren’t at the wedding, however, which was emblematic of the separation Sacha and Tara were kept at. Yet, they desperately needed their mother, the actress who would often work on location or simply need to live her own life. They loved her, but described her as a “narcissist” who “abandoned” them. “I just wanted mummy to love me,” said the young voice of Sacha speaking in one of several tracts in the book. “She nourished me in a way a muse nourishes; at a distance.”

While Collins was filming at Hammer, the children were left in the grip, literally, of an enormous, twenty-something nanny called Fat Sue. The book claims Fat Sue would wrestling with young Sacha and getting him to massage her. Does this suggest sexual intent? “There was a lot of S&M,” he acknowledges. “She wouldn’t just sit on me, but sit and grind me into the carpet. Yet I adored her. It was a powerful relationship.”
Did the experience see him sign up immediately for therapy? “I think that my childhood did prepare me for becoming an artist. As you move through your projects you encounter strange forces and intuitions. I’m not squeamish about strangeness. I don’t regret any of it, oddly.”

Alexander Newley chooses to play it down now but the early years living with his mother were often an ordeal. Not surprisingly, he didn’t grow up the average little boy. He was unhappy, would stutter and refused to speak to the psychiatrist his mother took him to see. After four years in England, Collins and co moved back to Los Angeles, and the boy commuted between his parents in a range of different homes. That geographical shift alone must have thrown his head into confusion; one minute he’s living in a quaint Highgate village, the next he’s in Los Angeles. What a trauma for a wee boy? “The analogy I use is my life was full of jump cuts,” he says, grinning. “And it’s true. It’s been like a movie. I became interested in cinema because my life was so like it.”

The young boy would live in large houses and meet Elvis or Rod or Ringo but felt neglected, that he and Tara were “an experiment that failed”.

Newley won’t speak about his current relationship, although it’s likely he’s in one; so much of his life seems to be about a quest for love. “I fell for all my sister’s friends. I’ve always fallen hard,” he admits. But before Collins made it back to the big time with Dynasty, she remained distant. “My mother stalked the house in a self-righteous temper,” he recalls of the return to LA. “Cooking for her kids, doing the school run and entertaining them just wasn’t in Joan Collins’s mission statement.”

There are dismissive notes about his mother throughout the book; he seems to have a coldness towards her, unlike his father, but paradoxically, what strikes as odd is the detail and colour and love he also attaches to his mother. He describes her in ways sons don’t often describe their mum. “Alpha jezebel” and “firebrand”, he writes. And then spends a page describing her put on makeup. It’s almost the mark of a gay man, which he is not. “I would say that young boys do notice that,” he counters. “They don’t hold the information into adulthood, but where artists differ is that the childhood self never really checks out. I have a direct line to the deceptions of the kid in the book, which is why I gave him a voice.”

Aged 11, Alexander walked away from his mother’s perfectly made-up face and took himself off to live with his father. “She had abandoned me to Sue and now I was prepared to abandon her back.” Anthony Newley was performing in cabaret in Las Vegas for much of the time. This meant his son could meet the likes of Elvis (“Black hair dye ran down his pasty white face – he looked all played out – and pissed off”) and receive a white mountain bike from Evel Knievel, which he was much happier about. But the little boy would have been much happier to have his dad at home. Meantime, Collins decided to move back to London to arrest a career and a marriage on the slide. The career would be reprised with soft porn films The Stud and The Bitch, but the marriage hit the skids.

Alexander Newley lived in Los Angeles with his dad for three years, but of course life was never uncomplicated. He didn’t take to his dad’s new air hostess wife and decided he’d come back to England. But not to live with his mother. “I wanted to go some place new,” he maintains. “A place without parents.” Encouraged by Fat Sue, who had come back on the scene briefly, Newley attended boarding school in the Midlands, which is where the book ends.

In spite, or perhaps because of the circumstances of his life, Alexander Newley seems a happy sort. He’ll reflect on how his parents behaved, but doesn’t seem to harbour anger. He says he blames them for their solipsistic behaviour, their inability to put their children before their life-sucking careers, as if this “ogre called showbiz” is somehow not part of their normal character. “I don’t have regrets,” he says of his life so far. “And I have the unique experience of growing up the son of these two amazing creative personalities, at an amazing time of the sixties going into the seventies.”

Anthony Newley died in 1999, aged 67. “My dad is my touchstone,” he says. “He gave my world continuity.” In spite of the frustration/anger/disappointment he felt with his parents, he continues to declare love for both. Joan Collins, he says, is happy with the book, overall. She’s certainly been big enough to support his paintings, particularly his portrait of her, which is certainly revealing. “She hung it in the drawing room and to her credit it’s not for the faint-hearted,” he says, grinning. Indeed, Michael Caine described it as a picture of Doreen Gray. “She’s a trouper,”

Newley says of his mother. “And she’s adorable. She’s very strong and with this worldly persona but she has this vulnerability the public don’t see. And I love her.”

Yes, yes, it’s great you’re not spending fortunes lying on shrink’s couches, Alexander. You seem a level-headed, fairly balanced, talented man. But don’t you ever wish your dad were an electrician and your mum a home help?

“No,” he says, laughing. “I think one of the points of the book is owning the history. You have to take possession of it. There are no victims. And I’m more than happy my parents were both visiting comets.”