Peter Hitchens

The mother of three – mild -mannered, tall, greying Louise Brooks bob – is wondering whether she should really be telling me all this: about how she met her husband when they were both Trotskyite students at York University in the early Seventies; how they lived together before getting married in 1983; how they moved here, to this leafy suburb of Oxford, 15 years ago when their first child was born and she decided to give up her job as a solicitor; how they first became disillusioned with socialism after an ill-mannered IRA-supporter threatened to push her husband’s teeth down his throat at a Labour Party meeting. Is it wise? Perhaps not, but something’s got to kill the time. It’s a sticky hot day. No breeze. I am sitting nursing a lime cordial. Eve Ross Hitchens – she kept her maiden name as a middle name – is standing, rocking her three-month-old baby in her arms. We both check our watches surreptitiously. So far, her husband, the right-wing pundit Peter Hitchens, has been gone an hour – the Telegraph’s photographer took him off in search of a hillside with views over Oxford.
I crack my knuckles. Mrs Hitchens offers me another lime juice. We smile politely at each other and incline our wrists slightly to check the time, again. I try to imagine what it must be like being married to Peter Hitchens. He could hate for Britain. He hates Tony Blair. He hates John Major. He hates television. On his twice-weekly programme on Talk Radio, and in the pages of the Daily Express, where he has worked since 1977, Peter Hitchens never tires of conveying his hatred of the single currency and the promotion of homosexuality and single mothers. He wants to bring back hanging  – as well as the firm hand of the Establishment, Anglican values and a sense of pride in British history. Above all, he believes the victory of the liberal progressive Left in the Sixties left Britain in a moral vacuum – and that the only way we as a society can get ourselves out of it is by recognising the importance of the family. Which is sort of what John Major used to say. And Tony Blair still does.
Just imagine being married to Peter Hitchens, then. Imagine having your marriage held up as the socio-political ideal. How does Eve cope? ‘I don’t like to dwell on it too much,’ she says with an apprehensive smile. ‘I feel a bit superstitious about it actually  – in case our marriage suddenly falls apart. But you have to understand that my husband only says these things because he cares very passionately about them.’
The passion is not immediately apparent as Peter Hitchens returns – phew – and sits down on the sofa opposite. Nor is the expected severity. He seems calm, relaxed and, if anything, jovial. He has a toothy, boyish smile. And he lolls a bit, rather than sitting ramrod-backed. In conversation he doesn’t rant so much as express himself articulately with polite assertion in a tone only occasionally bordering on the indignant.
There is something quite intense about his manner and appearance, though  – the bristling Jack Russell, testing the air for a rabbit or a rat. He has a short back and sides, big intense eyes and big intense eyebrows to match. He wears a blue, open-neck shirt but no tie – which is surprising, given his belief that the rot set in when gentlemen stopped wearing them, at all times, even weekends.
We are having one of those enjoyable exchanges about the good old days that only people too young to remember them can have. Things were a damn sight better then. In the days before the country went to the dogs.  Oh yes. ‘If we had managed to combine the prosperity we have now with the moral structure and security and restraint and good behaviour which were commonplace 40 years ago, we would be much better off,’ Hitchens concludes in a rich, measured, World Service baritone. ‘People could think for themselves then. A lot of young people today are living dismal lives because their lives are empty of meaning and moral purpose…’ And so on.
I nod. He’s very persuasive. But so he should be. This, after all, is the theme of the book he has just written. The Abolition of Britain, published this week, is a full-length indictment of modern Britain and the profound changes which threaten its existence. It says so on the back cover. I might add that it is also carefully researched, thought-provoking and really rather lyrical. But there are some wrinkles. Surely the majority of the population must have been just as blandly conformist and unquestioning 40 years ago as they are today, certainly in the way they dressed and behaved? Hitchens folds his arms, shakes his head and sighs.
‘To imagine there was nothing wrong then would be absurd,’ he says. ‘Of course. Half the changes that happened in the Sixties happened because people were discontented. But they came up almost invariably with the wrong solutions. Comprehensive schools were not the answer to grammar schools. There was a completely unjustified loss of nerve by the ruling elite, a loss of confidence and pride. We had a very successful, peaceful, prosperous and civilised society, which quite a lot of other countries want to emulate.’
Hitchens looks as though he’s trying to suppress a smile as he says this, and it makes you wonder whether he can really be as angry as he wants you to believe he is. Doesn’t he ever catch himself slipping into character? ‘Yes of course. You are bound to. But it doesn’t mean you are being phoney. The willingness of people to accept the destruction of their own culture without complaint makes me genuinely angry. Not enough people realise something precious is being lost.’
Come off it, I find myself saying, things can’t be as bad as all that. ‘Oh but they are. Terrible, terrible. What will I be nostalgic about in 20 years’ time? Having glass in my window rather than corrugated iron? I think we are in a state of total social disintegration. People in the south-east who never visit their own country, who never see, as I have seen, a northern housing estate, just aren’t aware of how far things have gone.’
According to William Burroughs  – homosexual, heroin-addict, conservative – a paranoid person is someone who knows what is going on. I take a deep breath. It is time to mention the ‘p’ word. ‘Paranoid?’ Hitchens says. ‘Me? I object to the use of psychiatric terms in politics. You could say that it’s a good thing that there are people like me who worry more than other people  – who are more… you could say paranoid, you could say obsessive, I would say, “more sensitive to what is going on around them”.’
Hitchens knows that people might laugh at him. ‘But I don’t mind. It’s a defence. I remember when I was in the Industrial Correspondents’ Group I didn’t go along, well, to put it politely, fellow-travelling with the Left. I decided to cultivate the right wing of the Engineering Union instead. This was considered an act of great eccentricity and the word “bonkers” was used. People called me bonkers. Well, OK. Tough. Just because I’m not running with the pack. Journalists are pack animals. And they are fantastically incurious as well. They know what they want to find and they find it, and once you step outside that pack you can expect to be called names.’
Which of course is exactly what he wants because, for all his commitment to his beliefs, Hitchens recognises that he is partly driven by a spirit of competitiveness, a pure love of argument. ‘I suppose so, yes. I don’t like losing. And often in an argument I feel confident I can come out on top. I’m not trying to destroy the other person, just their argument. Some people enjoy drinking or driving very fast, some enjoy arguing. It is just as exhilarating.’
But when I suggest that he sometimes exaggerates his case to win an argument, I am given a glimpse of his darker, more bullying side. He glowers at me and asks that I give him some examples. Well, I say, comparing the liberal revolution in Britain to the Cultural Revolution in China. It is just too extreme. Much as they might have secretly liked to, the Labour Party has never paraded right-wing professors wearing dunce’s hats. They have never committed human rights abuses or censored the right-wing press or imprisoned, exiled or executed dissidents.
‘Is it too extreme a comparison?’ Hitchens asks. ‘How old are you, 34? Well I am 47 and I grew up in a Britain that has completely disappeared today. That is to say my father was a British naval officer and then he worked in private schools  – places where the country retained a lot of its pre-revolutionary characteristics. So I am older in experience than I am in years. I know an England that people in their sixties would have known. And it has changed utterly. And the revolutionaries have been quite vicious in the way that they have excluded those that haven’t agreed with them. They don’t kill, they don’t reduce to penury or chuck into cesspits, they just exclude. You don’t read Kierkegaard do you?’
Er . . .
‘No, neither do I. But he said the most effective revolutions are those that strip the essence but leave everything standing.’
Presumably Hitchens must have found out what he knows about Kierkegaard as a student studying philosophy and politics. ‘Pah! I read Trotsky at university. I spent most of my time going up to Scarborough to run a cell of Trotskyite workers in a coach station, that and selling the Socialist Worker at the docks.’
A Burmese cat ambles in and curls itself around my leg. The baby has started crying upstairs. There is no television in the sitting-room. There is, though, a framed Solidarity poster on the wall and a display of antique, East-European currencies. In the same display case there is an arrangement of press passes showing Peter Hitchens down the ages: from young, bearded and idealistic to middle-aged, clean-shaven and…  idealistic. They chronicle all the Reagan-Gorbachev summits. They also chart the five years Hitchens spent first as Moscow correspondent then Washington correspondent. There is also a photograph of his father, Commander Eric Hitchens, in uniform. It was taken in 1927.
Until an eye defect prevented him, Peter Hitchens had hoped to be a navy officer, too. Becoming a Trotskyite activist instead seems to have been an extreme alternative. But he doesn’t identify this as an act of rebellion against his father. ‘No. It was much more a feeling that I had been brought up for a world that no longer existed. That all the impulses that would have gone into a normal English patriotism and Anglican belief suddenly found they had no home to go to. I was seeking another loyalty.’
Nevertheless, he was a rebel at boarding school. He had a peripatetic childhood: born in Malta, prep school in Devon, schools in Chichester, Cambridge and Oxford. There were incessant rows about his appearance, especially his hair. He wasn’t sporting. And his chief problem was with school food. As a protest he would only eat breakfast. He also showed an early tendency toward pedantry. At one school, in Cambridge, he discovered that a line drawn on the school map of the town, showing the point beyond which pupils were not allowed to cross, did not reach to the top of the page  – so he would cycle up to where the line stopped and cross, legally, into the town from there.
On another occasion, when he was arrested for breaking into a government fall-out shelter, there was ‘a terrible scene. My diplomatic relations with the school and my parents broke down. I finished my education here in Oxford at the College of Further Education. I put myself back by a year. Made sure I would never get into Oxbridge. It was my own fault. If I’d been my parents, I wouldn’t have let me get away with it. I must have been a severe disappointment to them then.’
Both his parents are dead now. His father died 11 years ago, his mother 25 years  – just after he had graduated from York and started his first proper job on the Swindon Evening Advertiser. ‘My mother killed herself in rather distressing circumstances,’ he says bluntly. ‘I acknowledge it  – I have rather distressing feelings about it  – I don’t want to make a business of it here.’
His parents’ marriage had broken down after his mother, Yvonne, had had an affair with a defrocked vicar. The first report of her death was that she had been murdered in Athens. Christopher Hitchens, Peter’s elder brother by two and half years, flew down to Athens and found a suicide note addressed to him. He discovered from the hotel bill that his mother had been trying to phone him in London. Ten years later, it emerged that Yvonne was Jewish, and that she had wanted to keep this a secret from her (Protestant) family. This, of course, made the two sons Jewish, as well  – and the revelation came as something of a shock to the fervently Christian Peter.
Christopher, a militant atheist, is probably the most famous and certainly the most controversial British journalist working in America. He is as left-wing as his brother is right. In their public lives the sibling rivalry between the two is on an epic scale. Indeed, the scrapping Hitchens brothers have been described as the Liam and Noel Gallagher of political thought. But, really, if you think about it, they are very alike.
Admittedly, Peter is more dapper, leaner, cleaner-cut, brittle and repressed: Christopher is more shambling, tousle-haired, jowly, flamboyant and cool. And true, Peter stands for family values and goes to church every Sunday: Christopher is pleased to be known as a drunk and a wastrel. Martin Amis says that Christopher likes the smell of cordite and, according to Jonathan Raban, he has the manner of a lazy Balliol dandy, with the killer instinct of a pit bull terrier. The same applies to Peter. They are both controversialists. They are both contrary. They are both, as they used to say in the good old days, too clever by half.
Christopher manages to appear off-the-scale liberal yet is anti-abortion, he writes books attacking not only Mother Teresa but also Bill Clinton. Not for nothing is his collection of essays called For the Sake of Argument. If he is a right-wing Leftie, his brother is a left-wing Rightie. Peter shares the killer instinct, the love of humiliating his opponents in a debate. Except that his are the views of a York University student who found one faith  – Trotskyism  – and like so many (Paul Johnson springs to mind), dropped it in favour of another God.
And Peter, it seems, is incapable of adopting a world view lightly or with reservation. He has to immerse himself in it utterly, fanatically. ‘If it hadn’t been for the loss of the Trotskyite system of belief, my religious faith might not have come so quickly,’ he says. ‘Once you’ve had a world view you can’t cope without one. I don’t suffer from doubts. In terms of my faith I suffer from surprise that some people don’t believe. When people ask in shock if I believe in God, I say, “Well, don’t you?”‘
Christopher has said that the ugliness of his younger brother’s hack arguments on subjects such as the need for capital punishment makes him cringe. He adds that he admires Peter’s muscular prose, but qualifies this by saying that he sounds like Denis Thatcher without the sherry and jokes. The fundamental point of conflict between the brothers, though, is over religion. ‘Yes,’ Peter Hitchens nods. ‘I think so. Everything else flows from that. His socialism is his private religion and he spends an awful lot of time arguing with God. I mean, why write a book attacking Mother Teresa? The whole reason he finds her objectionable is that she thinks death is not the end and faith is important. And if you were confident that both these things were worthless propositions, it wouldn’t worry you, would it?’
Are they both role-playing? ‘Oh yes. Canada is all about not being the United States. Being Peter Hitchens is all about not being Christopher Hitchens. Of course it is. Brothers compete. We’ve been fighting since we were children. We have private jokes and we mock each other. But just because it’s a performance, doesn’t mean the difference isn’t genuine.’
The difference may be at a deeper level, too. Christopher Hitchens has said that he doesn’t know why his parents ever married. ‘My mother had charisma, father was a conservative, stodgy guy. She was a liberal. I take after her, my brother wants to be my old man.’ I’m sure Peter Hitchens may have wanted to be like his father, but I don’t think he was desperate for his father’s approval. On the contrary, he seems to have spent a career searching for disapproval from everyone  – everyone, that is, except his mischief-making brother whom, I think, he secretly, perversely wants to please. Peter needs Christopher to define him just as much as he needs a world view to conform to, be it Trotskyite or Anglican.
He has a vulnerable side, then. He agitates out of fear of being bored. He is, I think, an essentially decent but pessimistic and frustrated man with low self-esteem and, contrary to his claims, a hatred of being mocked.
In the 1997 election, for instance, Tony Blair teased:  ‘We have been very generous in allowing you a question. Please try to contain yourself, otherwise, if you are going to be bad, we may not call you again.’ Hitchens hated that.
‘I want to get beyond the ghettos of left- or right-wing opinion,’ Hitchens says, leaning forward on his sofa. ‘Be it in the Guardian, or on the BBC or in the Express. That is why I have written this book. Half the time I just think left-wingers are not listening to me because I’m a reactionary. They think nothing I say needs to be taken account of. Yet we share a lot of concerns. I actually prefer left-wing people to right-wing. But they won’t have me. They don’t want to hear.’
Alas, poor Peter. Always where he doesn’t want to be. On Talk Radio instead of Radio 4, which he is convinced has ostracised him since the invitations to contribute dried up a year ago. At York rather than Oxford. In agreement with Tony Blair over the importance of the family, rather than at loggerheads with him. A poor man’s Paul Johnson rather than the real thing. And, at what should be his moment in the sun  – the moment when the Left is in power and he, as a right-winger, can savage them with the joy of an opposition polemicist  – he finds himself being smiled at and patronised and trotted out by Talk Radio and the Daily Express as a tame reactionary. Alas poor Peter. Nice chap, though.
This appeared in the summer of 1999. The Abolition of Britain became a best seller. In 2000, when the pornographer Richard Desmond bought the Express Group, Peter Hitchens resigned in protest and went to work for the Mail on Sunday. During the 2001 election he was a regular on Radio 4.


D. M. Thomas

Luminous white hair, dandruff on black polo neck, florid complexion, thick lips cracked and bruised, fingers stained yellow from smoking… The 64-year-old Cornishman drinking Rioja and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights at the table by the window is either a broken-veined pervert or a literary genius. As it happens, DM Thomas has been described as both – female critics tend to favour the former theme, male critics the latter. Actually, what he looks most like is the survivor of a bomb blast, emerging blinking and disorientated from the rubble, white with plaster dust.
It’s a rainy afternoon in Truro. The clouds outside the pub are black. We’re on our second bottle and Thomas is hunched forward, avoiding eye contact, telling me about the topic that preoccupies him at the moment – his wife Denise, who died at the age of 53 last October. ‘She had kidney cancer that went to her vertebrae,’ he says in a subdued, mildly Cornish burr. ‘Most people try to avoid thinking about death because there is nothing you can do about it. But when it happens to someone close to you, you can’t escape it. You know that half of you is dying and will die. You feel sorry for her but also for yourself because everything she knows about you dies with her.’
Donald Michael Thomas, DM Thomas to his readers, Don to his friends, has a first in English from Oxford. He began using his initials as a pen name when a contemporary at the university, another Donald Thomas, beat him into print with a collection of poetry. DM Thomas went on to publish six collections of verse, 12 novels, an autobiography, translations of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and, last year, a 550-page life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn which AN Wilson described as the most impressive literary biography he had ever read. But it is for his third novel, The White Hotel, that DM Thomas is best known. When it was published in 1981 it became a surprise bestseller, first in America, then in this country, where it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. When the author heard that Salman Rushdie had won that year, his response was commendably honest:’Fuck!’
The commercial success of The White Hotel was – and, as it has never been out of print, still is – something of a mystery to the publishing world. Though it is considered a ‘difficult’ novel, it has sold more than two million copies. And like most of Thomas’s fiction, it is about his obsessions with Sigmund Freud, the Holocaust, dreams, myths and the sex-death parallel – grand, over-arching themes which have earned the author a reputation as the dirty old man of literature. Does DM Thomas like himself? He sighs. ‘Yes and no. What does Hamlet say? Neither terribly good nor terribly bad. I sometimes have monstrous ideas, but I don’t think I’m a monster.’
Feminist critics of The White Hotel disagree with this analysis. They consider one chapter in particular to be the work of a monster. Lisa Erdman, the clairvoyant opera-singing heroine of the novel, becomes a patient of Freud in the Vienna of the Twenties. Together they explore her sexual fantasies and her sense of impending catastrophe. Twenty years later, Lisa is among the multitude at the massacre of Babi Yar, the ravine near Kiev where 200,000 Jews, gypsies and Slavs were machine-gunned by the Nazis. The careful attention Freud pays to Lisa as an individual in the first half of the book is contrasted shockingly with the way the Nazis dehumanise her in the second. She ends her life on a pile of naked corpses as a soldier uses a bayonet to simulate sex with her.
Feminist critics have accused Thomas of fantasising about being that soldier. ‘People are afraid of what Freud had to say about the inner-self and sexuality,’ Thomas says when I put this to him. ‘They would rather explore things on sociological and political terms than confront their own demons. That scene was an exploration of the good and evil in every human consciousness. I have no desire to put a bayonet in a woman’s vagina. But I do want to try and understand the destructive and sadistic impulse that makes some other men want to.’
The White Hotel is a metaphorical place where all that is good and beautiful in the world coexists with all that is evil and brutal. In her recurring dream about it, Lisa longs to go there yet dreads it as well. ‘I’m willing to accept that I am a White Hotel,’ Thomas says. ‘We all are, if we are honest. Even Freud admitted he had good and evil impulses. But most of us can leave those impulses under the surface. I have never beaten or ill-treated a woman in my life, but I accept the world of fantasy where these things can happen. And perhaps it’s the people who don’t explore these impulses as an abstraction who are the most likely to act upon them in real life.’
DM Thomas says he has always tried to be faithful to the truth in his writing, but in his private life, and that of his family, he admits he has engaged in ‘every colour of lie from white to grey to black’. As we shall see, his amatory career has been extraordinarily complex and he has been, at best, evasive about it. But the death of his wife has taught him that such deception is pointless. ‘Oh, what does it matter any more?’ he sighs. ‘Let’s get drunk. Ask me anything. I’ll try and be honest.’
And honest he is: about sex, drugs and infidelity. But such is his suicidal frankness and his clear vulnerability that you feel protective towards him. When he stubs a cigarette out, he taps it against the ashtray about 15 times in rapid succession.  Rat-tat-tat-tat. It is a compulsive gesture, agitated, wounded. He does this now and immediately lights another cigarette. He managed to stop smoking five years ago, he says, but the stress of watching his wife die made him start again. She was a smoker, too, and towards the end he would have to guide her hand to the ashtray.
Lately he says he has found it very easy to cry.  Although he has written a few poems, and has recently been commissioned to write a novella, he has had neither the energy nor the inclination to write fiction. ‘It’s been a struggle just surviving. I wrote a few poems about Denise tending the garden when she knew she wouldn’t complete it. They were a feeble attempt to pay tribute to someone who wasn’t known to the world at large.’
In the mid-Eighties Thomas suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to read or write for a year. He still suffers periodic bouts of depression. ‘It feels like a terminal illness, too,’ he explains. ‘It is almost as powerful as travelling with your wife on her road to death. I feel terrible for saying that – but in depression your life is totally without meaning.  Chaotic. Every moment is enormously painful. There are no parameters and you are convinced that every day until your death you are going to be miserable. I didn’t actively seek death. I lacked the energy to commit suicide. But I certainly felt it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t wake up.’
Living a life of deception may have contributed to his breakdown. At one stage he would divide his time between his first wife Maureen, with whom he had two children (Caitlin and Sean), and his second wife Denise, with whom he had one (Ross). Maureen and he grew up in the same tin-mining community near Redruth in Cornwall. They met while he was home on leave during his National Service and married in 1958, when he was 23 years old and still a student at Oxford. ‘At the time in Methodist Cornwall if you slept with someone, you married them,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t mature enough for marriage and I’m sorry I put her through so much. Then again, I don’t really regret it because children came out of it – and I wouldn’t want to wish them away. Maureen and I both went through a long period of uneasy, unsatisfactory compromise, in which she knew about my mistress. To her infinite credit she said in her late forties: “I’ve had enough of this, I’m leaving.” We are still on friendly terms. When she remarried I felt relief. Then panic.’
After graduating in 1958, Thomas become a schoolteacher and then, in 1964, a lecturer at Hereford College of Education. He remained there until 1978, when it closed and he was made redundant. Instead of looking for another teaching post he decided to try and earn a living writing fiction. He met Denise, an engineer’s daughter, when she joined Hereford College as a student teacher in 1966.
‘Denise and I had a very unconventional marriage. It was all to do with a piece of paper. She wanted a child. She taught at a church school and in those days, the Seventies, it would have been a scandal to be a single mother. We decided to marry so that she could have a child and keep her job. It would be treated as a formal arrangement and, then, as soon as we could – three years is the minimum – we’d get a divorce.’
Ten years and one divorce from Denise later, he was back with her. The couple moved to Cornwall and began living together. When they discovered that Denise had cancer they went to see their solicitor to check what provisions the original divorce settlement had made for their son. ‘We were told that the divorce had never gone through. We had the decree nisi but someone at Hereford Crown Court had neglected to issue the decree absolute. We were unexpectedly still married after 24 years. We were flabbergasted. And glad. It was like fate had stepped in. Even Thomas Hardy wouldn’t have got away with such an improbable twist.’
Thomas says he has been haunted all his life by Freud, whose writing style he consciously imitated. He also seems to have taken inspiration from Freud’s promiscuity. In his autobiography, Memories and Hallucinations (1988), Thomas alludes to affairs he had during both marriages, as well as to his penchant for seducing big-thighed students. Did he suspect he would be an unfaithful husband right from the day he married? ‘No. I drifted into it. It was like I was in a dream state. I wanted to be loyal but I did feel, selfishly, that if I wanted to be a writer I would need more experience of life. But my being unfaithful was a contradiction because though I wanted self-fulfilment I also felt a root loyalty to look after my family.’
When in turn his mistress found out he was being unfaithful, she seems to have taken it in her stride. ‘I think Denise knew no one else would be a real threat to her. She led her own life and we understood each other.’ Thomas doesn’t think that his literary fame gives him a feeling of empowerment, a sense that normal moral codes don’t apply to him because he is an artist. ‘No. I sinned and accepted that I was a sinner.’
So much for his private life, in his professional life he has been labelled a devilish misogynist (by the Guardian). And one Observer reviewer has compared him to ‘some raddled seducer, tweaking his passive conquest with absent-minded fingers’. He plays up to the image to an extent. For a few years he ran an erotic writing course from his home – until the Modern Review sent a female journalist on it, under cover, to see if he would try and seduce her. She claims he did. He says he didn’t.
DM Thomas denies the misogyny charge. On the contrary, he says, he feels at home in a feminine psyche. When I ask if he is Lisa in The White Hotel in the same way that Flaubert is Madame Bovary he answers: ‘Yes, although I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s great fun writing as a woman because it is the unknown. It didn’t occur to me until years after I had written The White Hotel that the Don Giovanni poem at the beginning is a representation of my own turbulent sexuality. The extreme puzzlement, wonder and frustrated longing I felt as an adolescent. I think it is easier for men to write about women than for women to write about men because we’ve all been inside a woman – our mothers.’
Thomas recognises that he probably went through an androgynous phase. ‘Around puberty I became something of a hermaphrodite. I have a sister who is ten years older than me and I would wear her clothes sometimes. It felt liberating because I couldn’t get close to real girls at that age and yet I had a strong sexual instinct to turn myself into one. I’m sure my sister played a vital role in fostering my weird imagination.’
Don Thomas and his sister had a peripatetic childhood. Their grandfather was a carpenter who worked in the copper and tin mines around Redruth. Their father, Harold, would have done the same had the mines not been closed after the First World War. Instead, he travelled to California to construct film sets at 20th Century Fox, only to return to Cornwall during the Depression. When Thomas’s sister married an Australian serviceman and moved to Melbourne in 1949, he and the rest of the family followed. Thomas, his father and mother, lived there for two years before returning again to Cornwall.
‘I never got on with my brother-in-law,’ Thomas reflects. ‘I was in my early teens when we moved to Australia, and maybe there was some Oedipal jealousy there. I never went through a homosexual phase – although I did sleep with my father a lot from the age of seven to 14, because I was afraid of ghosts. My mother would be turfed out of bed. I definitely had Oedipal fantasies about her.’ When his father died in 1960 Donald took comfort by sleeping the night in the same bed as Maureen his wife and Amy his mother. When his mother died 15 years later it triggered an obsession with death, which was to become a recurring theme of his writing.
Thomas has always wanted to revisit the place where his family lived in California. But because a clairvoyant told him 20 years ago that he would die there, he has never dared go. Now that Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau, the producers of ‘The Thin Red Line’, are making The White Hotel into a film, he might have to. There have been several unsuccessful attempts in the past to bring the novel to the big screen. First DM Thomas wrote a screenplay, then two more screenwriters tried and failed before Dennis Potter had a go, which is the version being used.
At one stage David Lynch wanted to direct it. ‘Lynch thought the opera singer was too highbrow and so should be a trapeze artist instead. He also thought that his then girlfriend Isabella Rossellini should play the role. When she left him he went off the idea. I suppose because of my parents’ connection with Hollywood I shall enjoy going there,’ Thomas reflects.  ‘But I feel superstitious about dying there. The stress might bring on a heart attack at the premire. Actually, that might not be such a bad way to go. It would be terrifying – but what publicity for a film about clairvoyance!’
We leave the pub and head across Truro, up a hill to the converted coach house where Thomas has lived for the past 12 years. Currently in residence is Sean, Thomas’s 35-year-old son from his first marriage, a former heroin addict whose taste for S&M led to a rape charge (of which he was acquitted), in 1988. He is also a published novelist. We greet him briefly and then head upstairs to the study. The walls are lined with shelves carrying various editions of DM Thomas’s many books, including more than 20 translations of The White Hotel. The computer is switched on. There is a sculpture of a unicorn with a broken horn, a photograph of Denise and, above his desk, a painting of Akhmatova, the Russian poetess whom he says is his muse. Thomas lights up another cigarette and, shrouded in smoke, his eyebrow arched, he looks demonic. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to experiment with drugs. He has had the odd joint, he says, but nothing stronger. ‘I know I have an addictive personality so I don’t want to risk heroin. But part of me would like to try it just once. If I knew I was going to die, I would try it.’
Perhaps when he goes to California? We are back on the subject of death. He is beginning to feel old. His body aches from sciatica. He has another drag from the cigarette he holds between blotchy fingers and, as he starts the process of stubbing it out 15 times, he tells me he has a religious consciousness but finds it difficult to accept the notion of an afterlife. ‘I hope there is one. I fear there isn’t. Denise and I talked about it when she was in the hospice and I tried to be more optimistic than I felt. When someone is desperate you put the best gloss on things.’
How should an artist die? Thomas tells me he once experienced the death of a novelist. William Golding used to live near Truro and the night before he died he had a party. ‘I stayed after the other guests left and his daughter brought out his two best bottles of wine. This upset William a bit and there was a certain tension. But then he suddenly told her he loved her. He looked out of the window and remarked upon how much he enjoyed living in this house. He squeezed his wife’s hand affectionately. I said goodnight, drove back seeing double, and he died of a heart attack half an hour later. That was a good way to go.’
Like William Golding, DM Thomas will probably be remembered for just one novel. He is philosophical about it. ‘Some writers can do it again and again and it’s wonderful. Others have to resign themselves to never producing anything as good again. At least I did it once. I didn’t get angst-ridden when later novels weren’t as commercially successful. The White Hotel is the novel with which I am most satisfied. I was almost in a dream state when I wrote it. It flowed automatically and needed little revision. It was the book where all my themes and obsessions found their absolute objective correlative.’
The phone rings and the answering machine clicks on. A young woman’s voice, well-spoken. ‘Hi, my darling. I’m at home. Call me when you get in. Bye, darling.’
The author and I exchange a glance.
‘Oh my God,’ DM Thomas says from behind a blue veil of smoke. ‘An unexpected intrusion of reality.’
Who was she?
‘A friend of mine. Yes. A friend.’ Silence. ‘Life has to go on.’ Silence. ‘Do you want to ask more about her?’
No. That’s all right.