Richard Dawkins

I think Oxford University’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has gone into shock – traumatic hysteria, to judge by his frozen features. But he has only himself to blame. He shouldn’t go around popularising science in the way that he does. It was only a matter of time before someone like me, a bona fide member of the public, would turn up at his house and try to explain his own theories to him – using, with unjustified confidence, words such as ‘biomorph’, ‘phenotype’ and ‘replicator’.
The professor blinks, then regains his composure. ‘Er, right,’ he says. ‘Something like that.’ I beam triumphantly. Mr Scott, my old biology teacher, would be proud. Prouder than he was when I failed my biology O-level, anyway.
Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, an actress turned illustrator, live in a large, pale-brick house in Summertown, north Oxford. It has a gravelled drive and a bike parked outside its Gothic-arched front door, but it’s not exactly an ivory tower – too many wooden floors, kilims and Conran cushions for that. The atmosphere is quite rarefied, though. It is a cloudless, still afternoon, and the 58-year-old professor and I are sitting on white wrought-iron chairs at a white wrought-iron table near the swimming pool in his garden. As the sun creeps round the chimney on the house, I keep edging my chair around to avoid being dazzled. Dawkins has his back to the chimney and in the sunshine his unkempt greying hair gives him a halo.
He is a handsome man, with an angular profile, hooded eyes and tufty eyebrows that make him look like a bird of prey. There is a couple of days’ stubble on his face, which he maybe thinks will help him avoid the description that journalists tend to give of him; that he has the fussy fragile air of a devout and unworldly curate – an amusing observation because, as well as being a world expert on Darwinian evolution theory, Dawkins is also one of the world’s best known and most combative atheists.
Today he still looks like a clergyman, if an unshaven clergyman, with fear and suspicion in his eyes. I think he is thinking that I might be some species of stalker. A deranged fan, maybe. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told him I’d read all six of his books. Or tried to prove it by quoting from them. Or told him I’d been going around quoting them to anyone who would listen.
But I couldn’t – can’t – help it. The man is quotable. He has four entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. ‘They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence; they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.’ That’s one of them, from his first bestseller, The Selfish Gene (1976). ‘However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead.’ That’s another, from The Blind Watchmaker (1986). My favourite, from Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), hasn’t made it into the Dictionary yet: ‘If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo.’ (The wings would have to be so big the mass of muscle needed to power them would be too heavy for the wings to lift – but it’s funnier the way Dawkins puts it.)
Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive and he’s neither in shock nor frightened. Perhaps he always speaks slowly and deliberately, giving short, precise answers that end abruptly and leave you stumbling to fill the cold and scaly silence with another question. It’s not that his manner is severe or impolite. Indeed he makes free with a boyish smile that exposes charmingly wonky teeth. It’s just that he looks either uncomfortable or bored, it is tricky to say which. Perhaps reserved is the word. I ask him if he is shy. ‘Not really,’ he says in a gentle alto, as thin and elusive as water. ‘No, I wouldn’t put it that way.’ A wood pigeon coos in the background.
Certainly, I press on, he is animated and passionate when lecturing or broadcasting. Is that because he adopts a more flamboyant persona for such activities?  ‘I don’t get nervous. But I only like to talk on subjects I know about. That is why I never do Any Questions. It would be intensely painful. I don’t enjoy debate. I don’t think the adversarial approach is a good way to get at the truth.’ He looks away distractedly. A plane drones overhead.
The thing is, I continue, the mildness and reticence don’t square with his muscular prose style. He writes beautifully, lyrically, but in his books he often comes across as coolly disdainful and arrogant, irritated even. He has feuds with fellow academics, especially American ones, over the correct interpretation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He dismisses those who don’t agree with him as being ignorant and lazy. ‘Darwinism is not a theory of random chance,’ he writes testily. ‘It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for even sophisticated scientists to grasp this simple point?’
In print, his most spectacular clash, conducted in The Spectator in 1994, has been with Paul Johnson, the Catholic historian and journalist. Dawkins wrote that he finds Johnson’s framework of belief ‘ignominious, contemptible and retarded’. Johnson challenged the professor to a public debate on religion and when Dawkins refused – on the grounds that he didn’t see why he should involve himself in a publicity stunt for Johnson’s new book – the journalist called him a ‘yellow-bellied prima donna’.
In person, the Dawkins brittleness becomes apparent whenever you try to persuade him to talk about himself. It seems the only way to draw him out is to appeal to his scientific instincts: dress up personal questions requiring a subjective answer as objective, scholarly ones. He has been married three times, for instance. But to reach this topic I have to go via the question of morality in a Godless universe. Evolution, according to Dawkins’s best-known theory, operates at the level of the gene rather than the individual, and we are nothing more than selfish machines blindly programmed to preserve our DNA. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no design, no purpose, no evil and no good – nothing but pitiless indifference. But if this is the case, I ask him, why do we sometimes behave altruistically, morally? We alone on earth can rebel against the selfish replicators, he answers, we alone are free agents who can learn to be good.
Can he give me an example? Has he learned to be good?  ‘I have many weaknesses,’ he says earnestly, twiddling with the arm of his glasses. ‘I’ve probably caused some unhappiness, but it’s never been willing and wanton. I’m extremely soft-hearted and, I think, kind-natured and perhaps some of the unhappiness I have caused has been from being too kind, foolishly so.’
Does he mean he has caused unhappiness by not being decisive enough, by avoiding confrontation in, say, his marriages? ‘Yes, I don’t want to go into detail but I think it’s possible to cause unhappiness by being unwilling to face up to the fact that it’s not possible to be kind to everyone all the time.’ And kindness is something we have to work at? It doesn’t come naturally? ‘Well, yes, as a biologist I would say there is a sense in which that is true.’
To find out about his childhood you have to go via his first brush with Darwinism. It wasn’t exactly an epiphany. ‘Not as much as it should have been. I was a bit sceptical and somehow it didn’t seem to be quite enough to explain all the beauty and the complexity of life. I didn’t really appreciate how powerful the theory is or the fact that it’s the only theory we’ve got. Above all, I didn’t appreciate the enormous amount of time available for evolution to take place – it is this that the human mind has most difficulty grasping.’
He was 16 at the time. Yet from birth Dawkins had been exposed to nature red in tooth and claw. He was born in Nairobi in 1941 and educated at Oundle School. His father, a colonial civil servant stationed in what was then Nyasa – now Malawi – returned to England when he inherited the family farm in Oxfordshire. ‘I have happy memories of Africa,’ Dawkins says. ‘Flowers, butterflies, colours, smells, but nothing terribly coherent because we came back here when I was eight.’ His parents are still alive, and their grandson – by Dawkins’s younger sister – is running the farm. It is mixed – dairy, pigs and arable – and growing up there young Richard came to regard death and sex as an everyday matter of fact.
‘It was always assumed I would take over the farm. I would help out driving tractors. But I don’t think I did much hand-wringing when I decided to enter academia instead.’ He took a first at Balliol College, Oxford, followed by a DPhil and a DSc. Before his return to Oxford to take up a fellowship at New College – and later to become the first Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science – he spent a few years lecturing at Berkeley, California. It was the time of the Vietnam protests and, though he took part in them, he now says he feels a bit embarrassed for having done so. His time in America also made him aware of the lobbying power of the Bible Belt, which last month celebrated the banning of evolutionary theory from schools in the state of Kansas.
Charles Darwin was considered controversial in his day, with politicians debating whether they were on the side of the apes or the angels. Dawkins provokes controversy because he goes further than Darwin. He calls theologians ‘bigoted enemies of knowledge’. He describes the Pope as a dangerous, world-damaging dictator. The concept of God, according to Dawkins, is like a virus, passed from person to person. In one sense, he says, he is surprised to find himself a controversial figure for promoting his ‘selfish gene’ interpretation of evolution theory, more than a century after Darwin. ‘But it’s only in the United States, where there are a lot of fundamentalists. I think it is insulting to Christians in this country to suggest that they are creationists. But on the other hand it has to be said there is still an enormous ignorance of Darwinism here. When you think it is the explanation for our existence and the existence of all life and that it is not difficult to understand – really rather simple, compared to quantum mechanics – it seems absurd that it is one of the last things you are taught in school.’
Dawkins describes Oundle as a conventional Anglican boarding school, and he was confirmed at 13. ‘I’ve got a lot of time for the Church of England,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s like village cricket. I’ve got a soft spot for it as an English institution. But evolution should be one of the first things you learn at school. It should be something inspiring and exciting for children to remember for the rest of their lives and what do they get instead? Sacred hearts and incense. Shallow, empty religion.’
Dawkins has a gift for communicating ideas – and for conveying his own wonder at the complexity of nature. When you read his books you begin to notice the minutiae of nature around you, the staggeringly sophisticated feat of engineering that is a spider’s web, for instance. ‘Yes, and it is so easy to take these things for granted,’ he says. ‘You have to imagine you are opening your eyes and seeing for the first time. I’ve never had a mystical experience, but I wonder if when people claim they have, that is what has happened, the scales have fallen from the eyes, as though they have just been born, with the intellect of an adult.’ He has aesthetic experiences looking at great cathedrals or listening to classical music, and he thinks these may be what people confuse with religious experiences. ‘I also get it looking through a microscope,’ he adds. ‘I feel overwhelmed. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And the more you understand about the natural world, the more beautiful it seems.’
He must get sick of being patronised by people who tell him he writes well, for a scientist. ‘It’s up to others to judge if some scientists can write well absolutely, or only well for a scientist,’ he says with a smile.  ‘Science is inherently poetic and awe-inspiring so you don’t need to colour your language – you just need to tell it honestly.’ In his latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins answers Keats’s question, ‘Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ with a robust, ‘No.’ He explains the workings of starlight, sound waves and rainbows, to prove that science should inspire rather than undermine the poetic imagination.
His gift for coming up with vivid metaphors has led some reviewers to label him the Tom Stoppard of science. But this is also to do with his good looks. I ask him if his handsome features and intelligence indicate that his ancestors were successfully selfish in their search for partners? He looks mortified. ‘Er, I don’t want to talk about myself but, in general, any animal is by definition the product of successful ancestors, um, in the Darwinian sense, and so any animal can look in the mirror and say that. But that is on a much longer time-scale. And it’s never occurred to me, personally, looking in the mirror. Er, I did recently find out a little about my family tree. Have you heard of the Balliol Rhymes? They are a collection of comic verse from the late 19th century. A dozen of my family were at Balliol and my great-great-great-uncle Clinton Edward Dawkins was there in the 1880s. The rhyme about him was, “Positivists ever talkin’/Such an epic as Dawkins/Creeds are out and Man is all/Spell him with a capital.” It’s not far off being appropriate to me. Except I would add animals to man. So maybe there is some hereditary influence there.’
Man and animals are all. And God is not dead because he never existed in the first place. I take a deep breath and attempt to summarise another of Dawkins’s arguments for him. For God to create the universe he would have to be hyper-intelligent. But intelligence only evolves over time. Is that about the strength of it? ‘It’s worse that that, the argument for God starts by assuming what it is attempting to explain – intelligence, complexity, it comes to the same thing – and so it explains nothing. God is a non-explanation. Whereas evolution by natural selection is an explanation. It really does start simply and become complex.’
And when he contemplates his own mortality in this Godless universe how does he feel? ‘I accept that this is all there is and that you have to live like hell while you can. I’m pretty calm about death. I don’t fear it. I just have this strong feeling that life is wonderful but finite and that we are immensely privileged to have it.’ He crosses his hairy legs – he is wearing shorts – and rocks back in his chair. ‘I used to think religion was a genuine comfort in death, but I’ve heard from hospital nurses who’ve said to my real surprise that the patients who really seem to be terrified of death are the Catholics. I don’t know why this is. Maybe they are doing a quick calculation of how good or bad they have been. But that is only anecdotal.’
There’s going to be no danger of him losing his nerve at the end? ‘No. I can safely say that.’ He has a teenage daughter, Juliet, from his second marriage. Does she represent a form of immortality for him? ‘Only for my genes, and that’s not really the same thing at all.’ Someone whose books go on being read achieves a kind of immortality, surely? ‘There’s a long way to go before we will know if this will happen in my case. But even that doesn’t compare with actually living forever. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to be immortal through my achievements, I want to be immortal through not dying.”‘
Is this evidence of a sense of humour? A former student of Dawkins has told me that the professor doesn’t really have one. He also told me that Dawkins is petulant and vain, and regurgitates the same themes formulaically in each book. I don’t know whether any of that is true, but I do sense that he has a bit of a persecution complex and is a little naive. He can’t really understand why Christians get upset with him simply for telling the truth as he sees it.
He also seems to have an almost inhuman lack of sentimentality. When his daughter was six he asked her why she thought there were flowers in the world. She said they were there to make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us. He was touched by this and sorry to have to tell her it wasn’t true: that flowers are in the world to copy their DNA.There is something quite comical about such pathological seriousness. I ask him if, given his loathing of all things superstitious – astrology, clairvoyance, fairytales – he felt the need to disabuse his six-year-old daughter of belief in Father Christmas? ‘Well, I did have a game with her in which we worked out how fast Father Christmas would have to travel to get round all the chimneys in the world in one night. I don’t think the realisation that it was impossible shook her too much.’
Richard Dawkins is getting fidgety. We have been talking for an hour and a half, and he is surreptitiously checking the time on his square-faced watch. The body language – knees drawn up to chest, hands behind head – could not be clearer. I ask if I can use his phone to order a taxi. He does it for me. When he returns he is carrying a new Dutch translation of Unweaving the Rainbow which has just arrived in the post. His wife Lalla pops outside to see if I want another cup of tea before I leave. She is the daughter of Viscount Bangor and the former wife of Tom Baker, with whom she appeared in Dr Who. She met Richard Dawkins at a surprise 40th birthday party for the novelist Douglas Adams. She was talking to Stephen Fry at the time, and when their eyes met it was, well, love at first sight.
His ordeal by interview over, Dawkins relaxes visibly. He tells me that he and his wife read poetry to each other. ‘Lalla reads so beautifully she can make me feel tearful. And when I read I can sometimes feel a catch in my voice. And I feel a bit embarrassed about it, try to conceal it. I don’t think I cry about things that happen in real life often – mainly because I am fortunate enough not to have anything much to cry about. It is more a kind of sentiment over the written word. Poetic language. I suppose it is a little embarrassing for a grown man to allow himself to cry over a book.’
Goodness. He’s finally talking about himself. Quick, quick. His world view has been described as a bleak and despairing one. Is he prone to melancholia? ‘Not at all. I have a wonderful life. Enjoy every minute of it. I love to see other people enjoy their life too. The myth of my having a pessimistic view of life comes from the way in which I express honestly the state of humanity in the universe – which can seem bleak if you set out with unrealistic expectations in the first place. I get worried and depressed about all the work I have to do. If I haven’t met a deadline or haven’t finished a book, I fret about it and wish I was more disciplined.’
Does he have a fragile ego, a need for reassurance? ‘I get hurt by criticism which is misguided and misinformed. The militant atheist label annoys me because it can only be said by someone who hasn’t read my books.’ Just time for one more question. His leisure hours. How are they spent? Recreational drugs? ‘No.’ The footie? A shake of the head. Singing round the piano? A smile at this. ‘Around the piano, yes, that’s a lovely thing to do. Haven’t done it for years. Singing around the piano.’
The door bell rings. The taxi is here. I leave the home of this man, who is in his way still fighting a Victorian battle, with the disconcertingly Victorian vision of him singing around the piano with his family.


George Weidenfeld

Your first impressions upon entering Lord Weidenfeld’s stately Chelsea apartment are puzzling – but not contradictory. A butler greets you at the door and as he takes your coat you can’t help noticing the erotic art hanging on the wall. It is by Klimt. Of naked women. In lascivious poses. With pubic hair. The butler leads you from the hall to the airy, book-lined study, which looks more like the smoking room of a gentlemen’s club. There is an ornate marble fireplace with brass and leather fender, fresh flowers on the table and, from the window, a view over the Thames to the pagoda in Battersea Park. Your eye is drawn from this to the forbidding portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries. Of popes.
The man I am about to meet is defined by these unlikely contrasts – bohemia and grandeur, pornography and power. He is dignified, formal and courteous. Indeed, he has the courtly manners and discreet civility of an old-world Viennese gentleman – he even fought a duel once. He is also the man who published Lolita, which is still considered, even 40 years on, to be one of the most sexually corrupting novels in the English language. With his four marriages – and what he once described as his ‘casual infidelities’ – he is a famed seducer of women. He is also a legendary giver of parties, at which the likes of Henry Kissinger might be seen clinking champagne flutes with Bianca Jagger or Martin Amis.
Lord Weidenfeld is the next thing you notice in the room. Sitting in a reddy-brown leather armchair in the corner he is almost camouflaged. He wears a well-tailored brown suit with a brown patterned Herms tie, brown shoes and brown socks pulled well up over slim ankles and calves. His skin is sallow, liver-spotted in places and he has brown, rheumy, bulging eyes. It is 9.30 in the morning. He looks well breakfasted. Probably had brown bread. Silently he rises from his chair, bows his head slightly and proffers his hand. He is not tall but he has considerable presence. The cataract operation he had 24 hours earlier is dismissed with a shrug. ‘I had to wear an eye patch for an hour,’ he says in a precise yet softly lisping Austrian accent. ‘But I am fine now. Thank you. Would you care to sit down?’ He indicates an upright chair a good ten feet from his. I notice on the table next to him a copy of the day’s Die Welt, the German broadsheet, open at his regular column. The byline is Von Lord Weidenfeld.
It reminds you of the other contrasts in his life. He is a Jewish immigrant who escaped persecution by the Nazis only to be honoured in later life by the Germans for services to their reunification. He is a Zionist who specialises in Nazi memoirs and who is, in his own words, a walking card index of the Third Reich. His friends include Helmut Kohl, Placido Domingo and Pope John Paul II. He managed to be chief-of-staff to the first prime minister of Israel for a year, as well as a member of Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet, and even now, in his 80th year, he has the ear of Ehud Barak, the new prime minister of Israel, as well as a number of New Labour Cabinet ministers. Eyebrows were raised when, just after the 1997 election, Peter Mandelson left a Weidenfeld dinner party early to go to Downing Street. Sir Nico Henderson remarked: ‘Not even Kissinger or De Gaulle leaves one of Weidenfeld’s grand dinners before the end.’ Lord Weidenfeld will be 80 tomorrow. There will, of course, be a party. ‘My friends in Germany and Israel also want to do something,’ he says, leaning forward and causing the armchair leather to creak. ‘So it will be like a birthday season, I think. It coincides with the 50th birthday of the firm [Weidenfeld & Nicolson]. We celebrated our first list in 1949 at Brown’s Hotel, and I keep thinking of all the people who were there who are no longer with us. Members of the Bloomsbury Set and the Gargoyle Club. The politicians of the time. The anniversary will have many memories.’
When celebrations and eye operations allow, Lord Weidenfeld keeps a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age. Already this year he has made 40 foreign trips; giving lectures; organising conferences between senior politicians in his Club of Three – Britain, Germany and France – an initiative designed to build bridges between these countries; setting up meetings for another of his forums, the German-Jewish Dialogue; working on his project to link six of Europe’s most distinguished universities with Oxford, in order that they work together in the field of European affairs.
The importance he attaches to solving great problems by encouraging great men to sit down and discuss great ideas is admirable – it’s very Enlightenment, very 18th-century, very Voltaire – but it can also look, in a certain light, a bit like social climbing. Where does he find the energy? ‘Well, the extraordinary thing is this: if you have the right state of mind, travelling can be calming. Not at all tiring. Barring delays in airports, and traffic jams in the holiday season, a foreign trip that is well prepared allows plenty of time for leisure, theatre and talking to friends. And you have hours on a plane where you can read and think undisturbed.’ Given that he seems to spend half his time in the air, it is safe to assume he has no fear of flying. ‘No fear at all. I’ve always been fatalistic about accidents. During the War, I did most of my reading during air raids. I couldn’t be bothered to run for the shelter. It was not a question of bravery or virtue, it was sluggishness.’ He says he has no real fear of death. ‘Not really, but then I don’t like to face the question in a detailed way. And I suppose people my age should. But I plan and predict and every so often I think, good God, delivery of manuscript in 2007! That’s a long way off. Am I going to see it?’
Weidenfeld was born in Vienna in 1919, an only child, part of a Jewish rabbinical aristocracy that dated back centuries on his mother’s side. His boyhood was spent in the company of adults, reciting Ovid every evening and listening to Wagner. Max Weidenfeld, his father, was an insurance agent who yearned to be a classics don. Max was also a Don Quixote figure, according to his son, always painting glowing pictures of his son’s future. ‘Temperamentally I aligned myself with him, sharing my father’s sense of fantasy. I grew up in a sort of hall of mirrors.’ It was generally thought that his father had a long extra-marital liaison with a good-looking blonde. His mother suffered the triangular situation and never showed her feelings. George, or Arthur as he was then known, seems to have been unaffected by this, at least in his youth.
He began studying law at the University of Vienna and, concurrently, at the city’s diplomacy college. It was at university that he learnt his skills as a womaniser – from a medical student who had a clinical detachment, an attitude more heartless than callous, which both impressed and disturbed the young Arthur. It was also here that he fought a duel to establish his credentials as a gentleman. As was the protocol of his Zionist fraternity, he approached a Nazi student and told him his shoe-laces were undone. Realising it was a hoax, the Nazi accused him of impertinence and demanded that their seconds meet. They bowed at each other stiffly. The Nazi’s seconds refused to give Weidenfeld satisfaction because he was a non-Aryan, so he had to proceed to the next degree of insult. He sought out the Nazi while he was dining in public and called him a coward. The duel took place, Weidenfeld sustained a few minor cuts and the honour of his fraternity was served.
This took place a week before the Anschluss. Five months later, in August 1938, Weidenfeld fled, arriving in London, via Zurich and Paris, with a small suitcase and a postal order for 16 shillings and sixpence. ‘The taxi driver took me to the wrong address for the boarding house – because he had mistaken an “o” for an “a” – and I ended up at a palatial house in Belgrave Square. The butler came out, looked me up and down and said there must be some mistake. He looked at the address and said, [It’s Belgrove, my dear fellow, King’s Cross.” The house belonged to Sir Henry Channon [“Chips” Channon, the Conservative politician].’
Arthur Weidenfeld soon found himself a job at the BBC, first in the monitoring service, then as a diplomatic correspondent reporting – under the name George Weiden because it was considered easier on English ears – about occupied Europe. In the evenings he would sit in the Waldorf opposite the BBC, and study the English rich, learning their manners, such as always arriving three minutes late for an appointment. Soon, the young Weidenfeld was being invited to join them. Once, when asked to tea at the house of a well-known landed family, the hostess said insouciantly: ‘I hear you come from Germany. Did you know the Goerings?’ Amazed at her naivety, Weidenfeld muttered something about having lived in Vienna, while the Goerings were rather busy in Berlin.
When I ask what advice he would give his 19-year-old self if he met him now, Lord Weidenfeld looks up at the ceiling and says: ‘Well, if I could live my life a second time I probably couldn’t avoid making certain mistakes again. I would have liked to have had a more conventional, more tutored education, though. I had to do so much extra learning myself because I couldn’t finish my university studies in Vienna. I wish I had in those days a more omnivorous appetite for acquiring learning, as oppose to socialising. Intellectual curiosity brings enthusiasm. But I also avoided drudgery and my high entry point into publishing gave me opportunities to enter into friendships with great galleon figures of English intellectual life: Ayer, Toynbee, Spender, Berlin.’
In 1948, he co-founded the Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishing house and, although he sold his shares for several million pounds in 1991, he remains chairman of the company. He describes his business partner Nigel Nicolson – son of Harold – as a great believer in friendship and loyalty and a true English romantic, who was always much more interested in quality than financial success. Among their earliest books was one about the coal industry by a young graduate called Harold Wilson. They were also the first to publish Antonia Fraser and Margaret Drabble.
Although there was a residual anti-semitism in Britain at the time of his immigration here, Lord Weidenfeld recalls, it was fairly harmless. ‘There was a strong sympathy of the upper classes for Nazism but, with the exception of such excretions as Unity Mitford, it was mostly mild. There were people who went to the Olympic Games and liked the German manliness but it was partly unthinking and they did it to shock bourgeois consciousness.’
Even so, he found it fairly easy in England to fit in. His father, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for a year, found it more difficult to adapt. The escape from Austria of Max and Rosa Weidenfeld was arranged from England by their son. ‘There was a role reversal with my father but I don’t think he found it humiliating. It was more a subtle transformation so that I became the father and he the child. I became the head of the family, taking care of my parents who couldn’t find their way in an alien land.’
On his death-bed in 1967 Max Weidenfeld began a letter to his son but never finished it. It read: ‘Whatever I may have done or failed to do for you, at least I tried to give you a sunny youth… ‘ I ask Lord Weidenfeld if he feels he, like his father, has any unfinished business. ‘Oh, I have an enormous amount of unfinished business. But I hope that it will be finished by others. At the moment I am hyperactive, I constantly take on new things.’ I point out that, actually, I meant unfinished more in terms of his emotional life, you know, his, um, relationships. He pauses to reflect. There is much to reflect upon. In 1952, Weidenfeld married Jane Sieff, the niece of one of the founders of Marks & Spencer, and they soon had a daughter, Laura. Jane left him for another man in 1954 saying that George’s work had come between them and that she couldn’t stand, ‘another breakfast with Trevor-Roper’. In 1956 he married again, to the statuesque bohemian Barbara Skelton. He had fallen in love with her while she was still married to his friend, literary journalist Cyril Connolly. Skelton wrote in her diary that she was obsessed with Weidenfeld sexually, especially with his fleshy, extravagantly hirsute body. In his autobiography, Remembering My Good Friends (1994), Lord Weidenfeld recalls how, soon after they met, Skelton invited him over to breakfast. He found her wearing a fur-lined jacket over pyjamas. She ordered tea. It was brought. ‘The moment the waiter left the room our love affair began.’ Some love affair: on their honeymoon he put to her the suggestion that she should release him without financial obligation after three years. In her memoirs Skelton was unkind about Weidenfeld. She described him as a magnetic but trivial man solely devoted to worldly values. She found his obsession with his work chilling. ‘Gush gush,’ he would whisper as she lounged sulkily at the head of a star-studded dinner table. ‘You simply must be more gushing.’
Their conjugal life, Weidenfeld recalls in his memoirs, was a disaster from the outset. ‘To my horror, Barbara imported a cat to Chester Square and hired a drunken butler who left taking all my shirts with him.’ The marriage was soon dissolved and she returned to Connolly. Weidenfeld’s third marriage was to a wealthy American, Sandra Payson Meyer. She, too, couldn’t stand the parties every night. Finally, in 1992, he married Annabelle Whitestone, a tall, blonde English Valkyrie, 25 years his junior, who was previously the consort of an even older Jewish man, the late Polish pianist Artur Rubenstein. ‘I might have made wrong choices or persuaded others to make wrong choices,’ Lord Weidenfeld reflects. ‘I am incredibly fortunate now – having not been incredibly fortunate in former marriages – to have found someone with whom I am very happy and fulfilled. Without wishing to sound sentimental this is the culmination of my life. The happiest period. To a large extent through this relationship. And I have a very good relationship with my daughter and grandchildren. They give me an enormous amount of pleasure and virtually no pain. Various elements in my life have been harmonised and I have few regrets. I am content.’
One way in which Lord Weidenfeld feels his life has been harmonised concerns his Jewish identity. Though he is an agnostic, he regards the survival of the Jewish people as being the central leitmotif of his life – and the founding of the state of Israel as being the most important event in the 20th century. ‘We have now reached a tremendous turning point for two reasons. Anti-semitism has been deprived of its two roots, homelessness and Christicide. First, the Jewish state has been consolidated into a critical mass of six million people. This is an irreversible fact of life. It gives a refuge and a chance for Jews, wherever they may be,to have a passport. This means that the icon of the wandering Jew no longer exists. Second, this Pope has now said that anti-semitism is a sin. He has said that the Jew is the elder brother of the Church. He has absolved the Jew of responsibility for the death of Christ. So all that remains of anti-semitism is a mild form of secondary xenophobia.’
In his autobiography, Long Life, Nigel Nicolson writes that Weidenfeld loves England. ‘Although I came to think that his spiritual home was Israel or the United States… I still have to think which nation he is referring to when he says “we”.’ So where do Lord Weidenfeld’s loyalties lie? ‘I am preoccupied with ideas of multiple identity and multiple loyalty,’ he says. ‘I have spent most of my time, and I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, on bridge-building operations between Christians and Jews, Jews and Germans. My loyalties are not divided. They are cohesive. I think of myself as a British European Jew.’
But, come the day, where would he like to be buried?  Surely it must be Israel? ‘As you know, I don’t think much about death.’ A smile. ‘I would be very happy to be buried there. If there is room on the Mount of Olives, certainly. But my answer can’t be emphatic because I haven’t really considered it.’ Weidenfeld is an incurable optimist. He believes we have to be positive about Europe, and especially about the Germans. He recently attacked a British journalist for writing, ‘Admit it, we all hate the Germans.’
But if he doesn’t hate the present generation of Germans, surely he must hate the Jew-hating generation that was in power in the Thirties and Forties? ‘I hated the Nazi regime,’ he says. ‘I never hated the German past or German culture. I never hated Richard Wagner. I feel very happy with the present and the last generation of Germans who, as Helmut Kohl put it, have the great mercy of late birth. But if I were a Freudian, I would say the British have an almost erotic relationship with the Germans. Underneath all the hatred, they mean a great deal to us. We need them.’
For all his old man’s sweetness and his still youthful enthusiasm, impulsiveness and profligacy, Weidenfeld must have been, in his day, a pretty sharp operator. Nigel Nicolson notes: ‘He had greater resilience than me, an acuter mind, more daring… a gift for persuasion both in business and in friendship. In extremis he was a great fighter.’ Another friend describes to me Lord Weidenfeld’s incredible ability to look bored. ‘He sometimes has a look of utter tedium on his face and this makes people shrivel before him. But he is essentially a social animal. It doesn’t matter where he is, in a Vienna airport, a Manhattan apartment or the English countryside, his only landscape is human.’
A number of Weidenfeld’s achievements in business may have been facilitated, then, by his gift for manipulation – call it charm, call it social skill, call it conviviality. One friend recalls how, at his parties, he will grab you by both wrists as he talks intensely to you, then, the second he sees someone more interesting come in, he uses the grip to push you away, sending you spinning across the room. ‘Yet somehow,’ the friend adds affectionately, ‘one never minds.’
Weidenfeld really does know how to win you over, how to impress upon you his power and potency. It’s the erotic art and the papal portraits again. And, in what must now be self-parody, he really does offer just about everyone he meets a commission to write a book. It makes you wonder if there is a whole department at Weidenfeld & Nicolson devoted to fending off would-be authors that its chairman has recommended. Is the benign manner, the friendliness, something he can’t help then, or is it a more conscious affectation? ‘I like to be liked,’ Weidenfeld says. ‘A lot of people I have sneaking respect for don’t care, but I do. And it makes me a little vulnerable. But I also like to understand what is in the mind of a political opponent or a person who has done me wrong. At the same time I am consistent in people I disapprove of. Sometimes I show it, sometimes I don’t. There are certain people I would never have anything to do with, nor ever have. I’m not a great hater but I don’t approve of the Murdoch press. I think he has debased the British press. He has cheapened it and encouraged intolerance and prejudice.’
Lord Weidenfeld’s daughter, Laura, also speaks of his vulnerability. She says that all he really wants is acceptance. I would add that, for all his self-deprecation, he also makes himself vulnerable by wanting so desperately to be taken seriously. Not mocked, or thought trivial, or vain. Which is something of a paradox, really, because I suspect that part of his appeal with men has been that they find his earnestness endearing. How sweet, for instance, that he calls his autobiography Remembering My Good Friends. It’s a quote from Richard II. But unfortunately it sounds like one from Hello!. And with women, the attraction has been that, though he is clearly a survivor, they think him slightly hopeless: a brilliant man who needs looking after, who cannot drive a car, make coffee or work a video machine. They want to mother him.