Jools Holland

When Jools Holland’s not suppressing rebellions in Kent, he’s listing the service stations he’s visited or playing boogie-woogie. Whatever happened to rock’n’roll? asks Nigel Farndale

Like a water spider skitting across the surface of conversation, that’s Jools Holland. It’s to do with his wandering focus: he nods and smiles constantly, but rarely concentrates on what you are saying, still less on what he is saying. It’s also to do with his relentless flippancy and jocularity.

When, for example, the talk turns to his move from a town house in Blackheath, south-east London, to Cooling Castle, near Rochester in Kent, he gives a cheery nod and a smile. ‘Wherever I lay my flat cap is my home,’ he says, pleased with his joke, and with himself. He also seems pleased with his new role as lord of the manor: when he got married last year, after a 16-year courtship, he gave a slice of wedding cake to all of the villagers.

His wife, Christabel, is a member of a landed Scottish family and was formerly married to the Earl of Durham. Among the 800 wedding guests were the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Mabel, Ringo Starr, Stephen Fry and the McCartneys, who flew in by helicopter for the reception. The Prince of Wales couldn’t make it, though he did invite Holland to his wedding, earlier that year. Connected, in a word. A pillar of the establishment, even. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this former punk rocker has just been appointed deputy lieutenant for Kent.

Does he, I ask, wear a flat cap in his official capacity? ‘Not when I’m being DL, no. I wear one when I am going dog-racing. Hardly any dog tracks left. All gone now. Catford. Wembley. Mad. Great sadness.’ This is how he talks, by the way. In rapid, clipped, one-word sentences delivered in a reedy, back-of-the-throat, south-London voice.

I ask if the DL of K gets to pin medals on people, on behalf of the Sovereign. ‘I haven’t yet but I would be very happy to deliver a telegram from the Queen to someone who is 100. I think it is my duty to promote Kent and to suppress any rebellions. Every five minutes there is an uprising of some sort. Peasants revolt – that started in Kent. And when Mary I was marrying Philip of Spain it was the people of Kent who came and rebelled. But I would like to reassure all your readers that they can sleep soundly in their beds now that I have control of Kent. I also keep an eye on our coastal borders, in case there is an invasion. There was a report recently that the Germans were planning to include Kent as part of France in a new map of Europe, and that is exactly the sort of thing I like to keep my eye on.’

As we are in Kensington today, at the HQ of his record label, Holland is not wearing a Kentish flat cap. He has gone, instead, for a more spivvy, London look: black suit with velvet piping, Chelsea boots, clunky diamond cufflinks and a Rolex watch. His fingernails are dirty and there is writing on the back of his hand. ‘It’s only within the past five years that I have found the right thing to wear,’ he says. ‘When Squeeze started touring America in the summer of 1978 – one of the hottest summers America had known – I turned up with a fur coat and snow boots. I had had no idea what to expect and I had to carry them around America for two months.’

He was only 20 then, a tender age to experience rock stardom. Squeeze had two big hits under their belts that summer: Up the Junction and Cool for Cats, both of which sold more than half a million copies. They weren’t really a punk band – their tunes were too catchy and cheerful, their lyrics too clever – but they got lumped in with the punk movement, like the Police, with whom they shared a manager. Did they also share groupies? ‘That is one of the benefits of being young and handsome and playing music. I still play music.

‘Also, if the other members of the band were off their faces that meant you could move in on the lady folk. I look back with fondness on all that, but it is like looking back on another life. We would check into hotels that were more comfortable than my flat. Now my house is more comfortable than most hotels.’

Ah yes, the hotels. Holland keeps a diary in which he records such minutiae as the size of hotel room he is staying in, as well as the merits of service stations he has frequented. It suggests he is in touch with his inner anorak. Still to be obsessed with boogie-woogie after all these years also, perhaps, shows a want of imagination. He has, after all, been playing it since he was eight.

He had been taught to play St Louis Blues on the piano by his Uncle David and could soon play fluently by ear. ‘I was lucky,’ he tells me rather touchingly, ‘because when I heard my uncle play boogie-woogie on the piano for the first time, the cosmology of the room came into focus. I was mesmerised by the way the left hand could play a constant riff while the right hand rolled off on its own. And I’m still mesmerised.’

Holland left Squeeze at the height of the band’s success, because ‘I like to be in charge. I like a benign dictatorship. In Squeeze I wasn’t the dictator.’ He formed his own band, which soon fizzled out. The chance then arose to host a documentary about the Police recording a new album at George Martin’s studio in Montserrat. Holland proved a natural in front of the camera: confident, irreverent, witty.

At one point, Stewart Copeland, the Police drummer, was demonstrating different styles of guitar-playing and Holland silenced his exhibitionism with an abrupt, dismissive: ‘That’s enough of all that.’ The documentary led to him being asked to co-host The Tube, with Paula Yates, live from Newcastle every Friday night. ‘When we did the audition we thought: We don’t want to do this. Imagine coming up here every week. So we were off-hand and rude and badly behaved, which it turned out was just what the producers were looking for.’

The Tube, which ran for five years between 1981 and 1986, was chaotic, ground-breaking and compelling. It featured unsigned bands alongside rising and established figures, but the undoubted stars were the hosts: Holland’s nonchalance and cynicism was the perfect complement to Yates’s flirtatiousness and anarchism. ‘I feel I ought to apologise to the people of Britain for my interviewing style on The Tube,’ Holland says. ‘I think I ushered in a more ill-mannered and disrespectful form of television. All I can say in my defence is that there was a certain earnestness and humourlessness about television interviewing at that time and we wanted to subvert it a bit.’

Later With Jools Holland has re-awakened the innovative spirit of The Tube, and is now in its 26th series. Among the new talents it has introduced over the years are Catatonia, Travis, Macy Gray, Gomez, Stereophonics and The Fugees. The highlight of each show is the moment when all Holland’s guests play together. That the show has been running for so long – 14 years – makes you appreciate Holland’s own longevity. He is 48 but seems older. Not in terms of looks but… When he was a young man hosting The Tube, he seemed oddly old and world-weary, using old-fashioned, not very rock’n’roll expressions, such as ‘splendid’ and ‘ladies and gentlemen’.

‘I know exactly what you mean,’ he says, helping me out. ‘Funnily enough, a friend of mine had a load of videos of The Tube and is just putting them on to DVD for me because I wanted to show them to my daughter who is friends with Pixie, Paula’s daughter. [Holland has three children: two from an earlier relationship.] And I watched a bit of one yesterday and it was odd to see what an overly confident, cocky person I appeared to be – because I hadn’t done that much television at the time. But I was clearly a big “reckon-I-am” person and, for some reason, that seemed to work. At the time, market research suggested that people saw me as an older brother figure, even though I was only 23.’

He must miss Paula Yates. ‘Well, it was sad what happened to her. She was so funny and sharp. The friend who is transferring The Tube onto DVD came across this moment where she calls me a stupid c— just off the microphone. He isolated the sound and said: “Listen to this. Probably the first time that word had been used on television and no one noticed it.” Well done Paula. You couldn’t be pretentious with her. She would catch people off balance. The moment she made me howl with laughter was when she introduced “Fred Mercury”. Freddie was so not a Fred…’ Holland has been commissioned to write his memoirs.

‘I’ve got up to 1994 so – when did Paula die? – I don’t think I’ve quite got up to where she drops dead yet.’ He is referring to Yates’s death from a heroin overdose in 2000. ‘But you have to have the high and lows,’ he continues in an inappropriately jokey voice, ‘the tears and the laughter!’ Did he have no intimation of Yates’s impending meltdown? ‘I didn’t sense the seeds of that at all, no. There was no sign at all that she was anything other than a teetotal, devoted mother who was very quick and amusing. There was no portent of things to come.’

How has he managed to survive so long himself in the rock world, without sliding into drug dependency, I mean? ‘It’s funny, I dreamed last night that Rod Stewart was trying to give me loads of cocaine. That was a strange dream to have.’ Especially given Rod’s legendary stinginess. ‘Exactly… But it was just a dream.’

What about when Holland is awake? I imagine he is no stranger to cocaine. Long pause. Much nodding. A smile, slightly cautious this time, the smile of the DL of K. ‘Inevitably around music there is drugs.’ Inevitably. ‘But you can’t generalise because one person can have a puff of marijuana and it will send them off their rocker. And cocaine can make people go mad, too.’

‘People’ as in Jools Holland? Pause. ‘I think I went mad on cocaine for a while, yes.’

And then? ‘And then, after a while, it made me nauseous, so I was lucky. What I did notice before I stopped was that three days later it would make me very short-tempered. It crept up on me and was changing my personality, making me twitchy and unpleasant. Also, I would spend hours talking to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. Also, it doesn’t make music sound any better.

‘People taking coke grind their teeth and imagine they want more and more sex. A jazz cigarette, on the other hand, can sometimes open the door to helping you understand a piece of music better. It’s like alcohol. Some people can’t drink. Paula Yates couldn’t. After one drink she would go mad. No tolerance. Personally, I do like a nice pint of bitter.’

Born in Deptford in 1958, Julian Holland had a happy if impoverished and peripatetic childhood. He is vague about what his father, Derek, did for a living, partly because he never stayed in one job for long. They once went without electricity for a year, and he recalls his father hiding from the rent-collector – but there were also short periods when there was money for cigars and vintage claret.

Did it bother him that there was no money around? ‘Actually, once I was aged 14 there was quite a bit of money. My father had various successes. My parents were very young. Still alive. My father had lots of books. Always read to me. Greek myths. Firing my imagination. And once I started to play piano he would bring home abstract jazz records for me to listen to.’

Did he want his father’s approval? ‘Every child who plays an instrument wants his parents to look at him. You want to show off your talent. And the desire and ability to show off is essential to success as a performer. I would drive everyone mad playing the piano. I would do it all day, relentlessly. In a confined space. You need to be obsessive about it.’

Holland’s relationship with Christabel was threatened in its early days by a potentially disastrous episode. Christabel asked Holland to put £35,000 worth of jewellery in a bank before going on tour to America. Instead, he left it in a briefcase at his studio and it was stolen – by his own father. Jools had to sit in court and see Derek Holland admit to having sold the hoard to finance a trip around the world. Holland Snr was jailed for 15 months. Holland Jnr described the case as embarrassing but said that both he and Christabel had decided to help his father seek psychiatric treatment.

I wonder if he sees some of his father in his own behaviour. ‘What do you mean?’ I mean his impulsiveness, a certain self-destructiveness. ‘Such as?’ Well not only did he leave Squeeze when the band was on a roll, but also, in a way, The Tube. He was suspended from it for declaring on a live trailer for the programme: ‘If you’re a groovy f—–, you’ll watch The Tube.’ He must have known that would get him sacked. ‘That was an inadvertent slip of the tongue. I wasn’t concentrating.’

Freud would argue that slips of the tongue are a way for the unconscious mind to reveal true feelings and motives. ‘You mean I might have unconsciously been trying to get out of the show? Well, possibly. I think by then I was getting tired of The Tube. It was convenient to be out of it.’

Also, he was expelled from school for wrecking a teacher’s Triumph Herald – he let the handbrake off and it rolled down a hill. ‘Expulsion is a strong word. It wasn’t as if I was an awful trouble-maker. Just one or two misunderstandings. I don’t think it was deliberate, letting the handbrake off. At the time, in my shallow mind, I found humour in the situation. Not really caring about school. I felt I already knew what I wanted to do, which was play the piano and show off.’

He wanted to be famous? ‘In a babyish way, yes. I fantasised about it. I wanted to be like The Beatles. I would listen to Motown and country and think: I could do that.’

Looking back at his life as he writes his memoirs, has he learned anything about himself? ‘Yes, I look at that fellow on The Tube and the fellow in the Squeeze video and I see a different person. I think I’m a slightly improved person now. Or, at least, more aware that there is scope for improvement.’ Less arrogant then, but is he more introspective? ‘Not particularly, no. More tolerant of my own mistakes and, therefore, other people’s perhaps.’

He seems a cheerful person. Is he always like this or are there ever long nights of the soul? ‘The short answer is no, I don’t. I have a lot to be positive about.’ What I’m getting at, I think, is that actually, it might just be that he is rather shallow. Is he? ‘Um. No, I think… Um. I think there is great joy in making music. It is the main focus for my life. Wherever I go, as long as there is a piano in the room, I am happy.

‘As you get older, you realise what your true needs are. Although I have more stuff, I have come to realise that my requirements in life are quite basic. I do get a certain cheerfulness and positive-thinking from my mum. She was once knocked off a motorbike and, as she was up in the air, she was thinking: this is good. I might get a day off tomorrow.’

Part of the positivism is a tendency to talk himself up. ‘I have made and sold more records in the past seven years than I have at any other time in my career, ‘ he says. ‘More than with Squeeze. It’s amazing at my age to be doing that. It feels like I’m doing my career in reverse.’

Soon after Squeeze ended he formed The Jools Holland Big Band, which consisted of him and a drummer. This gradually metamorphosed into the current 18-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. They are touring until Christmas, including dates at the Royal Albert Hall. They also have a new album out, ‘Moving to the Country’, featuring Bob Geldof, Dr John and Mark Knopfler, among other guests.

It is essentially a country album, hence the title. A departure for him. Who is his market going to be? Is his intention to lure people in who don’t normally try country? ‘Lure is a good word. I like the word lure. Yes, because it is playing country songs, but not in the country style. Brian Eno is one of the guests and he sounds like Brian Eno. I hope people won’t be frightened off by the word “country”.’

His band is certainly successful: his last album, in 2004, went straight into the charts at number five. Still, Squeeze could have been… well, maybe as big as U2, with whom they used to tour. Does he have no regrets about giving that up? ‘Squeeze did play huge stadiums in America. Places such as Madison Square Garden… I remember playing the Hope and Anchor with U2 and there were two men and a dog in the audience then the dog left. So we were each other’s audience. You want success for your friends so I look at Bono with pleasure rather than jealousy.’

So Gore Vidal’s aphorism – ‘When a friend succeeds a little part of me dies’ – does not apply? ‘There is an element of that. If you want to see jealousy look at artists. People who own vast amount of land are very jealous, too, I’ve noticed, of people who own slightly more vast areas of land. But, no. Not really. With U2, I don’t think it matters the size of the venue as long as that love of the music is there. I know that sounds…’ Cheesy? ‘Cheesy. But it’s true.’

Key interests ‘Wherever I go, as long as there is a piano in the room, I’m happy,’ says Jools Holland In reflective mood ‘I look at that fellow on The Tube and the fellow in the Squeeze video and I see a different person’



Rory Stewart

It’s not the crisply-tailored suit and tie that makes Rory Stewart OBE stand out in a London hotel lobby. It is not even his dark, slightly dishevelled hair — hair that allows him to pass for a native while travelling across dangerous terrain in the Middle East. It is the small, incongruous rucksack slung over his shoulder. It is not an affectation. The man is one part diplomat, two parts explorer — and he is about to fly back out to Afghanistan where he is running a project to preserve the country’s heritage. He is, moreover, a figure from a bygone age: imperial, heroic, a Lawrence of Arabia who has somehow slipped through a crack in the time-space continuum.
That is not to say he is physically imposing. When, at the relatively tender age of 29, he was appointed deputy governor of a province of 850,000 people in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq, he was known as ‘boss’, ‘governor’ and sometimes, because of his slight 5ft 8in frame, ‘chicken legs.’ That was in September 2003, six months after the US-led invasion. In that role he not only had to negotiate hostage releases but also deal with gangsters, tribal vendettas and a full Islamic insurgency during which his governor’s compound was besieged for three days by mortars and heavy gun fire, an experience which even he had to admit was ‘slightly alarming’.
I say ‘even he’ because, for all his mildness of voice and gentle, Old Etonian manners, Rory Stewart is made of strong stuff. In 2000, he took an 18 month sabbatical from the Foreign Office to go on a solitary, 6,000-mile walk across Asia. His journey culminated in a six-week trek through Afghanistan, shortly after the collapse of the Taliban. It took him over some of the most forbidding terrain in the world, in an area where US forces were hunting Osama bin Laden. Besides mountain ranges and freezing temperatures he had to contend with Pashtun soldiers demanding that he voice his support for Al-Qaeda. As he wrote in The Places in Between, an evocative account of his journey: ‘The new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov.’
It helped that he was a speaker of Dari, the local Persian dialect. He also speaks Farsi and some Arabic, which was one of the reasons he was chosen to be a deputy governor in Iraq. Other reasons include his background. After Eton, a short service limited commission with the Black Watch and a degree in History and Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, he became, like his father before him, a diplomat and was duly posted to a war zone, Kosovo.
He has written a new book. It is about his time governing in Iraq and is called, Occupational Hazards — My time governing in Iraq. He volunteered for that job; was it, I ask, with a view to getting a book out of it? ‘No, I was actually extremely reluctant to write a book because I was working for the government. My previous book had been about what I did as a private citizen.’
Does the Civil Service Code apply to him? ‘I’m not sure.’ Was the book vetted? He shakes his head and grimaces jokily. ‘One of the flaws of my new book, I think, is that I sometimes gave into the temptation to see things as slightly comical or exotic. It can seem strange, especially when people are mortaring you or screaming that you are an infidel in these very artificial, melodramatic engagements. But I wanted to convey the texture of ordinary people’s lives, what their expectations of government were, and how they negotiated cocky, strutting, self-confident foreigners.’
There were indeed some strange episodes. He was given so much development money by the Americans he wasn’t able to get through it all. In one month alone he was encouraged to spend 10 million dollars: the money arrived vacuum packed in million dollar bricks. He ran out of projects and had to return $1.5 million. ‘It felt surreal, at times. As if we were in a parallel world, normalised only because of the way Saddam had administered these provinces through personal governors who only handed out cash to Ba’ath party supporters.’
He is being modest. His book is not flawed. It is, on the contrary, a compelling, insightful and beautifully written memoir that makes you suspect that the occupation, or liberation, depending on your viewpoint, was doomed from the start. ‘Better plans and more troops might have given us a small advantage in 2003,’ he says now. ‘But direct foreign rule was never going to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy. Retrospective analysis that focuses on the failure to stop looting in the early days, or the abolition of the Iraqi army or the de-ba’athification programme, is missing the point which is that, even if those things had gone right, it would still have been a mess. It’s partly because of who we are, and what our culture is, and partly because of what Iraqi society was like after the fall of Saddam.’
He was in favour of the invasion, back in the spring of 2003. ‘I thought it would be a good thing. I felt that a lot of the opponents of the war had underestimated how horrendous Saddam was.  I went in thinking that, with a little bit of goodwill, it shouldn’t be too difficult to out-perform Saddam, and make Iraq more humane and prosperous. But the good will simply wasn’t there. These things were difficult to predict in advance. I haven’t seen anyone who was anti the war predicting exactly this would be the mess we would be in. As the months rolled on, it became clear to me that the hostility among quiet large areas of the population meant our errors were being magnified. People keep saying  “the electricity in Iraq still doesn’t work” but it still doesn’t work in parts of Afghanistan and Kosovo: the difference in those countries is that large numbers of people are well disposed toward us and are prepared to see our failure as incompetence rather than a deliberate conspiracy to humiliate them, which is how the Iraqis see it.’
Did the Iraqis not believe that our presence was temporary? ‘No one believed that. Even when the date of handover was clear — June 30 2004. However much I said: “We are leaving in three months” I couldn’t get anyone to believe me. Even if they had, they were just so horrified and insulted by our continuing presence that the fact that we would eventually hand over didn’t matter to them.’
So we should withdraw now? ‘My instinct is that Iraqi politicians are much more competent than we give them credit for being and that among the many evils the least would be taking the risk of withdrawing and letting them take more responsibility. The Iraqi government is canny enough to come to some accommodation with the insurgents and they haven’t so far been forced to do that because of the presence of our troops.’
One day, during the Sadr insurgency in April 2004, five thousand people suddenly arrived outside Stewart’s building shouting ‘Death to the Governor!’ and ‘Mr Rory is a donkey!’ When the shells started landing, did he think his number was up? ‘I was surprised by the feeling that, sub-consciously, I had always been expecting it. Maybe because I’d read children’s stories about it, or watched films about it. Watching my bodyguard team, former soldiers who were manning the guns on the roof and defending the compound during those three days of siege, I felt calmer because I could see how calm and professional they were being — not just rising to the challenge but almost enjoying it. There is a degree of play acting  for someone like me. I was in charge of planning how to react and it was quite empowering. The more difficult  experience was for my civilians who were locked in a room with no idea of what was going on, just hearing a hundred mortars and RPGs slam into the compound, and the sound of a 50 cal on the roof, but not being able to see what was happening. Although it was theoretically more dangerous being outside the concrete room at least we could see what was happening.’
He must have gone into Iraq with every expectation of not returning. Did he write last letters to his parents? ‘Oh yes, all that sort of thing. Every time I left Britain I mentally prepared myself and felt, as far as I could be, at ease with the world. I’d said what I wanted to say to my parents and friends.’
He dedicates his new book to his father: ‘A great man, a fierce ally and a most constant friend’. ‘He’s now 84 and just flew back from Fiji where he’s been writing a guidebook. He’s an amazing man. Fought at D-Day. When I was a child he was posted to Malaysia and there he would take me out into the jungle and teach me jungle craft. My three sisters would say I was the son he desperately wanted because I was happy to do irregular Greek verbs with him when I was six. Between six and nine every morning before I went to school he would take me fencing in Hyde Park.’
Rory Stewart didn’t take his sword with him for his trek across Afghanistan. Instead he took a dictionary, a walking stick, two pairs of socks, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag and some emergency rations. He suffered diarrhoea and dysentery, became riddled with bed bug bites and survived on little more than bread and vegetables. Now and again, Stewart’s diplomatic skills failed him. He got it badly wrong in Bamiyan, the site of the desecrated Buddhas in Afghanistan, when he ignored the security patrol’s orders to stop. ‘One of them chased after me and punched me in the face. The others just kicked me. In the end, I talked myself out of it and got away with one black eye.’
He took it as a compliment when British special forces, meeting him in deep snow, wound their transport window down to tell him: ‘You’re a fucking nutter’ before motoring on, leaving him on the road, exhausted in frozen socks.
Did he wonder if he was, actually, a nutter? ‘I did feel in Afghanistan that I had overstepped the mark. One of the reasons I ended the walk there was that I realised how lucky I was going to have to be to make it to Kabul and felt I owed it to my parents to come back if I made it that far. I never regretted it. I could have been shot but it felt like being an explorer and that was exhilarating. No one else has walked across Afghanistan in the winter maybe in the last 20 years and possibly the last 400 years.’
Did he feel lonely on his walk? ‘My objective was to try as much as possible to force myself into village culture, so it was easier travelling alone because it gives me sufficient vulnerability and isolation to push myself into a village and talk to people.’
When I ask why he felt the need to do that trek, he talks of the near-hypnotic pleasure of walking, of the unhindered connection with the physical world made by his rhythmic progression. ‘But also my great text is Don Quixote. He is sitting reading all these books about chivalry, then he puts his barber’s basin on his head and gets out this old map and sets of to be a knight errant. But he finds that 16th century society is not corresponding at all to his dreams of Arthurian romance and dragons. I think, in a sense, we are all Don Quixote. One of the aspects of being human is wanting to be more than human and creating heroes and playing a grand game with your life. Like Don Quixote, though, we all realise that what we are doing as we are strapping ourselves up and putting on our helmets is faintly ludicrous. The kind of glamour you are pursuing is vain and dies with you. It means nothing. But you do it because it makes you feel alive. On high ridges looking out over an intense, dark blue sky I feel more alive — more alive than I would feel walking down the King’s Road where I feel a tiny, isolated, irrelevant person surrounded by people in fashionable clothes and huge adverts for underwear that I don’t really understand.’
Chasing dragons? Wouldn’t it be easier to do it with mind expanding drugs? “Maybe I should try that. It would finish any possibility of a diplomatic career, though.’
It hasn’t hurt David Cameron’s career. ‘Well, OK. But at Oxford I was too square to do that.’
The lonely self exploration; how does that impact on his love life? ‘I’m pretty single. It is very difficult, that aspect. The reality is, I feel much lonelier in London than I do on an Afghan mountain. In London you feel you ought to have all these things — the wife and children — and so you feel more lonely. Whereas in Afghanistan I have a whole rationale, a story I can tell myself.
His friend the actress Clemmie Burton Hill had told me: ‘Rory has great equanimity, optimism and integrity. His adventurism is not gratuitous. He operate on different parameters to the rest of us, to a moral purpose.’ Sigh. Women, I put it to him, must love his swashbuckling ways. “I don’t think they do, actually. I hoped my walk would impress the girls — definitely — but I don’t think  it did.’ His full lips part into a wide toothy smile.
How about the family seat in Crieff, Scotland; that must make hearts flutter? “No, I think what I need is a sports car.’
It is academic anyway — for English debutants, at least — because for the next two years Rory Stewart OBE will be in Afghanistan, a place which in recent weeks has become almost as dangerous for Westerners as Iraq. In one incident alone ??? were killed. Does he blend in there? ‘I’m not very good at growing a beard. It comes out all wispy and rubbish.’ Has he learned to live with the threat of being taken hostage? ‘Being an Arab speaker, or being immersed in their culture, doesn’t seem to help. Look at Margaret Hassan in Iraq. The only thing that does help a bit is body language, I think.’ He pats his chest. ‘I instinctively do this, all the time. It’s all about manners. How you sit. How you place your feet. The amount of energy you put into greeting.’ At this point he holds his hand to his chest and says softly: ‘Salaam aleikum. Chetor hastid? Jan-e-shoma jur ast? Khub hastid? Sahat-e-shoma khub ast. Zinde bashi.’ It translates as: ‘Peace be with you. How are you? Is your soul healthy? Long life to you.’ Or more simply: ‘Hello.’ When I was in nasty situations in Afghanistan I thought if I can just get them to say ‘salaam’ back I will be 50% safer. I smiled a lot in Iraq, but Afghans are much more reserved and austere… But none of this being polite to people on the street is going to stop me getting my head chopped off!’ He laughs the enigmatic laugh of a Kipling hero, an intrepid Englishman, a fucking nutter.


Stephen King

Seven years after a van ran into him, leaving him with a dislocated hip and 25 broken bones, Stephen King still aches. His gait is stiff and awkward. His lank frame is still a little hunched. But it seems to suit his manner: a curious combination of languor and frustration.
He will be 60 next year and this looming milestone has got him worrying about his legacy, his place in the canon of literature. In some ways this might seem perverse. He is, arguably, the most popular novelist in the world – the 50 or so books he has written have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. He is also, probably, the world’s richest author – according to Forbes magazine his annual income is about $US50 million ($A65 million).
And as if this wasn’t enough, some of his stories have been turned into classic films, including The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Misery. The trouble is, his particular genre – the gothic thriller – has worked against his critical reputation. He tells me wearily that he is bound to be described as a ‘horror writer’ in the first line of his obituary. He wants to be taken more seriously, is that it?
‘That doesn’t bother me,’ he says, ‘it’s never that I’ve felt that much need for respect. My family has been eating. My house is paid for. And, in the end, after you’re gone, the work finds its own level. The critics don’t have much say in that. Some of the books which everyone sneered at for being disposable, such as Agatha Christie, have actually survived the longest on the bookshelves. No, what drives me crazy is when I am treated as a sociological artefact. No one wants to be reduced to a human beetlewig or a Halloween mask.’
His point is that when you are a famous author ‘everyone wants a piece of you’, even when you are dead. This is, in part, the subject of his latest novel, Lisey’s Story.
Lisey is the widow of an award-winning author. Two years after her husband’s death, she is going through his personal effects. Scholars are circling like vultures wanting to know if there are any unpublished manuscripts left in his study, any memorabilia, any incunabula. Lisey, hearing this as ‘incuncabilla’, begins to think of them as ‘incunks’.
‘I sent an early draft to an academic who has written a lot of books about my work,’ King says with a lugubrious grin, ‘and he didn’t get back to me. I think he took it personally. I think he thought I was suggesting he was one of the incunks, one of the crazy academics …’
King’s relationship with the academy is uneasy. When, in 2003, he was awarded a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters – one of the highest honours an American writer can be accorded – he gave an ungracious acceptance speech in which he accused the literary establishment of ‘tokenism’.
‘You can’t sit back, give a self-satisfied sigh and say, ‘Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop-lit question. In another 20 years or perhaps 30, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the bestseller lists.’ It’s not good enough.
‘Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer. What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?’
The literary establishment declined to be cowed. Harold Bloom, one of America’s most distinguished scholars of literature, declared the award ‘another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls,’ he said, ‘but perhaps even that is too kind.’
It sounded like intellectual snobbery. Equally, King’s sense of injustice sounds like an inferiority complex, despite the staggering superiority of his book sales.
‘That award nearly killed me,’ he now says. ‘I was determined I was going to accept it and make my speech. It needed saying. Two days later I was in hospital.’ He stayed there for two months with pneumonia. ‘The whole thing was an outgrowth of the road accident. My lung had collapsed and the bottom part of it had not re-inflated, but no one knew that. It stayed collapsed and got rotten and infected the rest. I had the thing with the tube in the chest. I thought I was going to die.
‘My wife Tabby came into the hospital and said, ‘I want to use this time to re-do your office.’ At that point I was so full of dope and tubes, I didn’t care. But when I got back from the hospital she said I shouldn’t go in there, to my office, because it would be too disturbing for me. So of course I went in there and it was like the Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas yet to come. It was like having a vision of the future. I was standing there thinking this is what it will be like, not this time but within the next 20 or 25 years. I will be in a coffin and Tabitha will have rolled up the rugs and will be going through all my effects, all the papers and unfinished stories. This is the final act. The clearing up after a life. I remember my brother and me doing it when my mother died of cancer.’
Stephen King married Tabitha Spruce in 1971. He had met her in the library at the University of Maine, where they were students. They live in Maine to this day – in Bangor – and have three grown children. She is also a novelist. Although he insists that the character Lisey in his new novel is not his wife, he does acknowledge that his book is a homage to the ‘invisible’ wives of famous authors.
‘The book is a celebration of monogamy, in a way,’ he says. ‘It is also about how even in the most intimate relationships we are always holding something back.’
We can never be wholly known? ‘Exactly. I think of my wife as holding a deck of 52 cards – if you ask me how many she is showing me I wouldn’t know. We are as close to each other as two people can be, but one can never be sure how much you do and do not know about another person.
‘I’ve been married 35 years so I guess we know more about each other than a lot of couples do. But even we don’t know everything. Some couples, I guess, give up trying to know. They give in and their marriage ends in divorce due to lack of interest, or the other partner straying outside the marriage. But sometimes creative people get creative about their marriage and find ways to revitalise it.’
Did his accident change his relationship with his wife? ‘It made me appreciate how vulnerable we all are. For a while I became overly protective about my family, especially when they walked on the street. I remember vividly – the way you remember traumatising incidents – the first time they let me out of the hospital after the accident. I couldn’t go out the front because there were all these fans and press waiting. So they took me out the back in a wheelchair to this loading bay. My wife had been able to get an apartment next to the hospital – one of the advantages of money – and I saw her walking towards me down the street and I shouted: ‘Stay on the sidewalk, Tabby! Look both ways before you cross!’ My heart was pounding with anxiety.’
I ask if there was an understanding between them that Tabitha would play the invisible spouse, that she would support his career from the sidelines.
‘No, I don’t think any woman makes that deal, or man in the case of Denis Thatcher. No one writes in their yearbook: ‘I want to marry a man known worldwide as a bestselling author so that my chances of being divorced from him when some famous actress catches his eye go way up’.’
Have any famous actresses caught his eye? ‘There are temptations when you are off on tour and doing the conventions. All sorts of temptations on offer, plenty of groupies. But what I mean is: no wife wants to become a Little Miss Nobody aged 42, traded in for a trophy wife. But what helped me personally in this respect was that my father deserted my mother when I was three and I saw what my mother’s life was like after that – what the consequences were when the man leaves.’
King felt ashamed at school about not having a father, he adds. He also recognised that his mother felt ashamed about being abandoned. But he doesn’t think he has tried to make amends for his father in his own marriage. ‘You mean like making amends for all the wronged women in the world? No, that’s too big a job, even for me!’
It was Tabitha who rescued his first novel from the bin when, in 1973, he threw it away in disgust. The book turned out to be Carrie, his first bestseller. Tabitha has also had to put up with her husband’s stalkers over the years. Once she heard the window break only to look up and see a man standing with what he claimed was a bomb. It wasn’t. He was an escapee from a mental institution who was convinced that King had stolen the plot for Misery from him. Another stalker claimed that King had flown over her house in a U2 plane and stolen her thoughts for The Shining. A third, a man in California, became convinced that King had murdered John Lennon, in a conspiracy involving Ronald Reagan.
It was Tabitha, too, who helped King overcome his addiction to drink and drugs. ‘Cocaine seemed to help at first,’ King says. ‘It seemed like a really good energising drug. You try some and think: wow, why haven’t I been taking this for years? So you take a bit more and write a novel, and decorate the house, and mow the lawn and then you are ready to start a new novel again. I just wanted to refine the moment I was in. I didn’t feel that happiness was enough: that there had to be a way to improve on nature.
‘As an older, wiser and sadder man I realised you can’t cheat nature. You take a hit of cocaine and it makes you a new man, but the first thing the new man wants is a hit of cocaine. Basically, I was an addict. I would take anything. In the daytime I used to be pretty straight, not getting blotto until five in the afternoon. But by the end I was a round-the-clock drink-and-drug addict. I rewrote one book – It – in a blackout.’
With Tabitha’s help he started going to AA and NA meetings in 1988. ‘By the time I had the road accident in ‘99 I had been clean and sober for 11 years. But then the doctor asked me where my pain was on a scale of one to 10 and I said 11, and he offered me a breakthrough, time-release pain killer called Oxycon.
‘So I took the pills until I didn’t need them any more. I continued to take them because pain is subjective. But the addict part of my brain began inventing pain just to get these painkillers so I could have more of the drug. I had to kick it the way a junkie kicks heroin. It was a two-week process. I didn’t sleep for two weeks. My feet twitched uncontrollably – that is why it is called kicking the habit, your feet literally kick out. It was horrible.’
His only addiction these days is to his work. The addiction is to the pleasure he gets from discovering plots, bringing characters to life and seeing what will happen to them.
‘Philip Roth has a great line in Everyman,’ he says. ‘Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up every day and go to work. That is a good line in an uncharacteristically bad piece of work. Work is the clear channel I can go to.
‘After that bout of pneumonia back in 2003 I picked up one of those hospital bugs and couldn’t keep food down. I lost 15 kilograms. Yet even in the worst days of that illness, even when I was vomiting, I was still able to write. That was when I started Lisey’s Story, my best book. I think it’s my best book. Even when I felt dizzy and weak, the words were always there for me. The writing was the best part of the day.’
As a writer, he continues, he has to have an understanding wife – because the writing process can be selfish. He has to disappear into a world of his own.
‘I get under her feet. When I’m writing in the morning, she stays out in the garden or does her own writing, or worries about the Republicans getting back into office. In the morning I work for three hours then go for long walks in the afternoon – my thinking time. As I walk, I try to guide my otherwise ungovernable mind back to the story I’m working on, looking for a hook.
‘When I’m not working, my mind doesn’t take kindly to being unhooked from its dope. I get migraines and nightmares. Very vivid. It’s almost like the DTs, like my mind and body is trying to scare me back to work. And once I’ve got back to work,’ he adds with a slow grin, ‘I can pass on my nightmares to everyone else.’