Doris Lessing

It takes Doris Lessing just four minutes to come out with something, if not actually controversial, then at least unexpected. It’s about Hitler. She says she understands him. This from a former member of the Communist Party. (She left in 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress, the one in which he denounced Stalin.) We are talking, I should explain, about Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front. She recently read another of his books, about three German soldiers who, like Hitler, return from the Great War to the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic. ‘They see people carting millions of marks around in wheelbarrows and, being old comrades, they stand by each other. And as you read that you suddenly understand Hitler.’

She’s not condoning Hitler, of course, merely explaining his early popularity. I mention her comment to show her endearingly cavalier way with language. She doesn’t care what people might think. She is past caring. And there is a greatness to this lack of care. How many 88-year-olds do you know who have become a worldwide phenomenon on YouTube, for example? She did, last year, when the press descended on the house in West Hampstead where she has lived for the past 30 years, the house in which we are sitting now. As she emerged from a black cab with her son, Peter, who, eccentrically, was wearing a boa of fresh onions around his neck, she was told she had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was asked for a comment. This was the first she had heard of it, yet she was heroically unimpressed. ‘Oh Christ,’ she said, waving the question away. ‘I couldn’t care less…I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.’

She was more gracious later, saying all the right things, but now when I ask about that Nobel moment she reverts to form. ‘Who are these people? They’re a bunch of bloody Swedes.’

‘They sell a lot of dynamite, Doris,’ Peter says. He has shuffled in to say hello, wearing a tea cosy on his head. He lives here, debilitated by diabetes. They had been returning from the hospital on that day of the Nobel announcement.

‘This is my son,’ Doris says, unnecessarily.

‘The other one being dead.’ Peter adds, equally unnecessarily. (Her elder son, John, a coffee farmer in Zimbabwe, died of a heart attack in 1992.)

‘Why have you got a tea cosy on your head, Peter?’

‘Because I’ve got a cold, Doris.’

The answer seems to satisfy her. ‘Anyway,’ she says, turning back to me, ‘the whole thing is a joke. The Nobel Prize is run by a self-perpetuated committee. They vote for themselves and get the world’s publishing industry to jump to their tune. I know several people who have won and you don’t do anything else for a year but Nobel. They are always coming out with new torments for me. Downstairs there are 500 things I have to sign for them.’

After I was buzzed into the house, I had indeed passed many boxes on my way up the stairs. I had also seen Peter at the end of a corridor, sitting at the kitchen table in his pyjamas. He nonchalantly, wordlessly, pointed a thumb in the direction of the sitting-room. That was where I found his mother, who is 5ft tall, with a soft, creased face, framed with grey tendrils that escape from a carelessly assembled bun.

The room, by the way, is everything you would hope a literary giant’s sitting-room might be: splendidly chaotic, more like a junk shop. Someone once said that Lessing seemed to camp out in her own home. There are stacks of books, some teetering precariously, a globe, a tray of nick-nacks, African masks, oil paintings, rugs rucked up on the floor. She lives in here now, sleeping on a red sofa because her backache, caused by osteoporosis, makes it difficult for her to sleep on a bed. She shares the sofa with her huge cat, Yum-Yum, the name taken from The Mikado. ‘One day I’ll fall over Yum-Yum and have to be carted off to hospital,’ she says, stroking the cat. Lessing is clear-minded and clear-voiced, but she does seem to gnaw at words, biting them, talking through gritted teeth like Clare Short. It gives even her moments of frivolity a certain sternness.

This most prolific and unconventional of writers has written the novel she claims will be her last (she has done more than 50 and ‘enough is enough’). The first half of Alfred & Emily is a novella about how life might have turned out for her parents had it not been for the First World War. The second half is a biography of her parents. Her mother was a nurse during the war. ‘She was warm-hearted but insensitive,’ Lessing says. ‘Nursing the wounded must have been hell. They would arrive by the lorry load, some already dead. That must have torn her up. It took me a long time to allow her that.’

Her father had been a soldier in the trenches. In 1917, shrapnel almost killed him. He had to wear a wooden leg and missed Passchendaele, the battle in which the rest of his company were killed. ‘My father was talking about men he knew who died at Passchendaele up until the day he died,’ Lessing says. ‘He often wondered if it would have been better if he had died with them. He didn’t let his disability hold him back, though. He did everything. I even saw him lowered down a rough mine shaft in a bucket, his wooden leg sticking out and banging against the rocky sides.’ He died at 62, an old man. ‘On the death certificate, cause of death should have been written as the Great War.’

She thinks much of her own character was informed by the war, through her parents. Without it, she might not have been writer, not had what Graham Greene said all writers must have, a chip of ice in her heart. ‘Well, I’ve often thought about it. I was born out of the First World War. My father’s rage at the trenches took me over when I was young and never left. It is as if that old war is in my own memory; my own consciousness. It gave me a terrible sense of foreboding, a belief that things could never be ordinary and decent, but always doom-ridden. The Great War squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And my parents never passed up an opportunity to make me feel miserable about the past. I find that war sitting on me the older I get, the weight of it. How was it possible that we allowed this monstrous war? Why do we allow wars still? Now we are bogged down in Iraq in an impossible situation. I’ll be pleased when I’m dead. That will let me off worrying about all these wars.’

It is an extraordinarily comment, delivered in a matter-of-fact voice. And it reminds me of something she writes in Alfred & Emily: ‘You can be with old people and never suspect that whole continents of experience are there, just behind those ordinary faces.’ In Lessing’s case, you could never guess from her small but kind eyes that she hated her mother. ‘We hated each other,’ she clarifies. ‘We were quarrelling right from the start. She wouldn’t have chosen me as a daughter. I was landed on her. I must have driven her mad. She thought everything I did was to annoy her. She had an incredible capacity for self-delusion.’

Did the book help her to understand her parents more; to empathise with them? ‘Because my father had lost a leg, it was as if he were the only one who had the right to suffer, whereas my mother also suffered because of the war. She claimed her true love went down in a ship, but I was never sure, because the only photograph she had of him was from a newspaper. Something phoney about that. Why wouldn’t she have had a proper photograph?’ Lessing came to despise her mother, whom she coldly describes as having ‘bundling, rough, unkind, impatient hands’. A turning point in their relationship seems to have been when her mother claimed to be having a heart attack. ‘She called her children to her and said, “Poor mummy. Poor, poor mummy.” I was aged six and I hated her for it. This woman whimpering in her bed saying, pity me, pity me. How did a nurse talk all this rubbish about her heart? She must have known it was an anxiety attack rather than a heart attack. It was invented. My mother died happily of a stroke in her seventies.’

But not before she had taken to writing to her daughter to accuse her of being a prostitute. After a while, Doris would tear up her mother’s letters as they arrived, without opening them. She was eventually driven to see a therapist about this bizarre relationship. ‘My father and mother should never have been married,’ Lessing says. ‘He was so dreamy and sexual, whereas she was so brisk and efficient and cut and dried. They didn’t understand each other at all. She was always funny about sex. She didn’t hate it, so much as consider it hadn’t existed. She would talk about sex as if it were an annoying person with a cold, bothering her.’

Born in Persia (as it was then) in 1919, Doris May Tayler (as she was then) grew up on a maize farm in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), her parents having emigrated there after the war. She read voraciously: literary classics sent over from a London book club. But she was an unhappy child and would run away from time to time. She was also paranoid about her weight and pioneered a diet of peanut butter and tomatoes. She would eat nothing else for months. It worked. She left home, and school, when she was 15 and married Frank Wisdom in 1939, at age 19, whom she met while working at the telephone exchange in Salisbury. He was a civil servant 10 years her senior. She had two children and began climbing what she once potently described as the ‘Himalayas of tedium’ of young motherhood.

In 1945, at the age of 26, she abandoned her family and married Gottfried Lessing, a communist who was a driving force in the Left Book Club. It was ‘my revolutionary duty’, she once said. They had a son, Peter. Doris and Gottfried divorced four years later, in 1949. She kept the name of her second husband, which may seem like an odd thing for a feminist to do, but Lessing has never been a conventional feminist. She has never been a conventional anything.

She emigrated to England with Peter and the manuscript of her first book, The Grass is Singing. It is set in Rhodesia and depicts a poor white farmer whose wife has a relationship with their African servant. Published in 1950, when she was 31, it marked her as a coming star, one prepared to challenge racist conventions. It also revealed her to be a novelist of huge natural gifts and technical command. Though dense with the smells and sights of the veldt, its technique owed much to the Russian novelists she had been devouring, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the life of the writer meant she had to be selfish. ‘Sentimentality is intolerable because it is false feeling,’ she says. For the next five years she would pay a family in the country to take her young child off her hands for a fortnight at a time so that she could write. ‘No one can write with a child around,’ she says. ‘It’s no good. You just get cross.’

She began mixing with the great and the good of literary London: her circle included John Berger, John Osborne, Bertrand Russell and Arnold Wesker. According to Wesker, ‘She was a good cook and gave wonderfully cosy dinner parties where we picked food from an assortment of plates and sat cross-legged eating it. She was like the best of her characters: concerned about friends, hugely intelligent, a no-nonsense person. She was impatient with humbug and pretentiousness. If you were guilty of neither of these, you were welcomed like family.’ Another of her friends at this time was the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. She had to stay the night with him once because it was late. ‘I wasn’t expecting anything but a nice chat. I went to get ready for bed and when I came back all these whips had appeared. What was really strange was that he never said anything like, “Oh Doris, would you like a little whipping?” And I never said, “Ken, what are all these whips for?” So we chatted away about politics, went to sleep, then, in the morning, in comes his secretary to tidy away the whips.’

As well as the stultifying suburban life of colonial Africa, her books have explored the divide across which men and women talk to each other, at each other; the earnestness and perversity of communism; the way in which passion does not diminish with age; and, most notably, female neurosis. Her most influential book is The Golden Notebook, published in 1962 and to this day considered a feminist classic. This often-experimental exercise in post-modern fiction chronicles the inner life of Anna Wulf, exploring what it means to be intelligent, frustrated and female. It starts from the assumption that the lives of women are intimately connected to the accounts of themselves that society allows them to give. This insight moulds the form of the novel itself, with Anna’s life being divided into different-coloured notebooks: black for writing, red for politics, blue for the everyday, and yellow for her feelings. The ‘golden notebook’ represents what Anna aspires to – the moment that will bring all her diverse selves into one whole.

With predictable unpredictability, the author now finds more to argue with in this work of her youth than do those feminists who elevated it to canonical status. She calls the novel her albatross and has come to regret the way critics failed to appreciate the structure of the novel, concentrating solely on its feminist message and its theme of mental breakdown as a means of healing and freeing the self from illusions. Her apparent irritation with the book may have had something to do with the adoring fans, especially feminists from America and Germany, who used to stand outside her gate in the summer. ‘It became the property of the feminists,’ she says. ‘Yet it was fundamentally a political book. I used to tire of having to explain to young readers in the 1970s what Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress meant to world communism. That’s what really gave the book its charge. At the time the comrades here were denying that Khrushchev had even made that speech, saying it was an invention of the capitalist press. Comrades were turning to drink in their despair.’

These days she can sound quite dismissive of the women’s liberation movement. ‘The battles have all been won,’ she says, ‘except for equal pay for equal work.’ And this seems to have alienated some of her former disciples. But what did the feminists expect? What did her communist comrades expect? What, for that matter, did the Nobel Prize committee expect? They certainly got more than they bargained for. Lessing seems to have been enjoying the extra weight her opinions carry now that she is a Nobel laureate. Her post-Nobel declaration to the Spanish paper El Pais was a case in point. She said that ‘September 11 was terrible but, if one goes back over the history of the IRA, what happened to the Americans wasn’t that terrible.’ It caused a furore in America, one that she seemed to revel in. For, as well as being uncompromising and single-minded, Lessing seems to regard herself as a professional contrarian. She was at her most obstreperous during last year’s Hay Festival of Literarature, flattening respectful questions from the audience with, ‘That doesn’t make any sense’ or ‘Explain yourself’.

She was right about the ‘bloody awards’, by the way. Her first was the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1954; since then she’s won everything – apart from the Booker, though she was shortlisted for it five times. In 1999, she was appointed a Companion of Honour. She was also asked to become a dame of the British Empire, but turned it down because it was ‘a bit pantomimey’. She has a pretty good idea of why the Nobel came along so late in her life. ‘It is probably because I have written in so many different ways, with never a thought that I didn’t have the right to.’

With her latest book she has come full circle to the Rhodesia of her childhood. There is a moving chapter in which she describes returning as an elderly woman to the country she had once loved, only to find it devastated by years of Mugabe’s tyrannous rule. She encounters a drunk and obnoxious black man who won’t let her see her father’s old farm. She had been a great champion of black rule. I ask if that encounter made her change her mind? ‘Would I have fought against the blacks if I had known what was going to happen? The answer is, no. Then again it wasn’t an attractive society I was brought up in. Quite ugly, in fact. If only it had been possible to say, “I will only support you if you behave properly once you get into power, instead of turning into a murderous beast like Mugabe.” Anyway, the fault is partly ours because why did we imagine that when the blacks got into power they would behave like, I don’t know, Philip Toynbee. Why did we assume this? Instead, we have this ugly little tyrant, Mugabe. An odious man. I’ve never understood what happened to him. Everyone I knew who knew him said he used to be intelligent. What a hypocrite to throw out the whites when he said he wouldn’t. Now look at the place. Starvation. Disease. Corruption. Low life expectancy. Terrible.’

Has she ever harboured any racist sentiments? ‘Of course I have. I was brought up surrounded by racists that nowadays no one would believe were possible. But I don’t think it’s a question of race. I think it is like the Romans in Britain. The Romans found us barbarians and left us barbarians, but roll on a few centuries and here we are civilised. My brother was quite extraordinarily racist. Thought he was superior to black people. You couldn’t believe it had never crossed his mind to think that not everyone agreed with his view that the blacks were baboons who had just come down from the trees. We didn’t see each for 30 years. Nothing had changed. Sitting in the kitchen here, I couldn’t have a conversation with him. I would have to count to 10. He tried to be a writer and was convinced I had stopped his own books being published. I hadn’t. It was simply that they were unpublishable. He was an archetypal inhibited Englishman who could only exist in the colonies. He would go scarlet with horror if the subject turned to sex or love.’

She says he became an alcoholic, and that she would have become one, too, had she stayed in Rhodesia. After all, her son stayed there and he became one. I ask what it is like to outlive your own child. ‘It goes against the rhythms of nature. Poor old John. He needn’t have died. I got on with him, though I disagreed with his politics. He was white with suffering and anxiety because of the drought. He was so buttoned up he wouldn’t scream and shout and complain. It is a trait of the British. You must try to weep occasionally.’

She also, of course, came to disagree with her second husband’s politics. ‘He couldn’t take my writing seriously,’ she says, ‘because he was a communist and thought me bourgeois and a Freudian. All these epithets. I find it almost impossible to believe that he remained a communist all his life. He was murdered in Kampala, you know. Ambushed. He got into a car with his second wife and drove straight towards Tanzania, which was mad, and they flame-throwered him, which was the most dreadful death, and it didn’t do his son any good. Peter was basically shattered by it. We think the communists did it because they put up a street name after him. That was how they did things.’ Communists, she now believes, are ‘murderers with a clear conscience’. But it took her a long time to get there. ‘Yes I called Marxism “the sweetest dream” in one of my books. Then I discovered it was all a load of old socks. It seems incredible now that quite intelligent people believed in it all. What doubts there were were expressed in sly jokes. The jokes contradicted everything we believed in. We used to joke about how we were wrong about everything.’

Knowing the restlessness of her mind and her inability to resist a chance to shock, I ask her whether she now thinks Margaret Thatcher was a hero for standing up to the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. No such luck. ‘She ended the Cold War did she? Well good for her. I couldn’t stand her.’



Brian Ferry

The fastidiousness should not surprise, yet somehow it does. When two mugs of tea are placed on the wooden table in front of him, Bryan Ferry leans forward and lifts them straight off again. ‘Can we get a couple of magazines to put these on?’ he says to his assistant in his wispy, halting voice. ‘Or some pads. Thick ones. This table has got some rings on it already.’ He is fussing, in other words, even though his manner and speech could not be more languid. And, though I don’t know much about furniture, I’m pretty sure the table he is fussing about is fairly ordinary, not obviously antique.

The reason it shouldn’t surprise, of course, is that this particular rock star is known for his exacting taste in, well, everything – suits, paintings, cars, women, houses, wine, even interior design (Nicky Haslam once said that Ferry was more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it). And he is capable of making grown producers cry with his, shall we say, attention to detail in the studio (his album ‘Mamouna’, released in 1994, featured 112 musicians and took five years to complete). Also, he is quite a strict and controlling father to his four grown-up sons (his words not mine). He is traditional, believes manners maketh man and likes to have the dinner table set properly.

Age doesn’t seem to have mellowed him, or left its patina. He is 62 and still looks as he has always looked – tall, lean and lupine with his floppy, side-parted hair still (suspiciously?) dark. When I suggest he hasn’t changed much, he sucks in air and says, ‘I don’t know. There are days when I look in the mirror and see the picture of Dorian Gray.’

Yes, but he’s not exactly rock-star addled is he? He’s no Keith Richards. ‘Mm, mm. I suppose when I started I was 25. Fairly grown up. I was never a wild, teenage pop-star type.’

Perhaps he simply cared too much about how he looked in those narcissistic and, at times, epicene early years: the eye patch and shoulder pads, the pencil moustache, the dinner jacket and studiously undone black tie. Tom Ford, the designer behind the Gucci brand, once said that Ferry was the ultimate style icon. And Peter York once memorably said that Ferry had led such an avant garde ‘art-directed existence’ he should be hanging in the Tate. He must love that quote, I say. He smiles shyly, avoids eye contact and hunches his broad shoulders as if drawing himself in. ‘I tend to be rather downplayed in real life, compared to my on-stage life. Quite self-contained. But I think my life has been interesting, for sure. Whether it is an artwork, I couldn’t say. Certainly, I’ve no intention of pinning myself to an art gallery wall. It’s a funny thing being such a shy person yet being a singer in a rock band. It’s a sort of contradiction.’

He certainly enjoyed his reputation as an aesthete, an exquisite, a dandy. But he thinks in retrospect that the emerald-green eye-shadow and the fake leopard-skin jackets of his early Roxy Music days were a mask to hide behind. ‘I felt I was playing a role. I felt the music was me, but the presentation wasn’t, necessarily. The spotlight can be a real handicap. It’s one of the reasons I like being in a band. Safety in numbers. I suppose it is quite hard to get on stage for the first time and so the clothes and the make-up helped. It can still be quite hard even now, when I’m not in the mood. You know, I think, “What are you staring at?”‘

We are in a high-ceilinged room above his recording studio near Earl’s Court, the one he once jokingly referred to as his Führerbunker, to his later regret. The walls are white-painted brick, the rugs Arts and Crafts. There are dustsheets over the furniture and, on the walls, paintings and prints by his friends and mentors the pop artists Richard Hamilton and Mark Lancaster. He knows a lot about fine art, does Ferry. Collects it. Has spent a lifetime studying it. Even did a degree in it in the mid-Sixties at Newcastle University, near to where he grew up in County Durham.

His father was a miner there, in charge of the pit ponies. It was a life of tin baths and outside privies. The contrast with his adult life in the South could not be greater: the aristocratic friends, the sons at Eton and Marlborough, the imposing country house near Petworth in West Sussex, the elegant town house in Chelsea (the one with the Bentley parked outside). There is still a trace of the North East in his vowels, but it is like ink that has faded in the sunlight. When you ask a question, he will murmur agreement softly under his breath, ‘mm mm’, and just when you think that’s all you’re getting, out will waft his answer.

The career shift from artist to musician seems to have been unplanned. ‘After graduating, I moved to London and found work as a supply teacher. Then I kind of drifted into music. I remember discussing it with Mark Lancaster. After he went to live and work with Jasper Johns, he told me it was much cooler to be an artist than a rock star. I’m not really sure why I didn’t take his advice.’

Instead of taking his easel to a garret, Ferry taught himself the piano and began to write music. He teamed up with five other musicians, including Brian Eno, he of the peacock-feather collars and synthesiser, to form Roxy Music. They also worked with the fashion designer Anthony Price to combine the look of glam rock with edgy, intelligent lyrics, innovative electronic music and highly stylised vocals. Their first single, Virginia Plain, came out in 1972. After that the hits kept coming: Let’s Stick Together, Do the Strand, More Than This, Love is the Drug, Avalon…

But Ferry’s love of art never went away and now he thinks not pursuing art as a first career has meant it has retained its allure for him. ‘The art world today is very social. I’m always going to dinners and openings. I have quite a few friends who are artists and dealers. I’m much more at home in that world than the music world. More comfortable.’

It was his aesthetic sensibility that landed him in trouble last year. In an interview with a German magazine, he described Albert Speer’s buildings and Leni Riefenstahl’s movies as ‘beautiful’. The tabloids savaged him and he apologised, explaining that his comments had been taken out of context and that they did not mean that he approved of the Nazi regime. On the contrary, he found it ‘abhorrent’. The Mirror in turn had to apologise to Ferry for misleading its readers in its reporting of this story. Among other things, the paper admitted that Ferry hadn’t even mentioned the word Nazi in the original interview. I’m glad The Mirror apologised. I remember thinking at the time that the press were being unfair to him. He was, after all, merely echoing a legitimate and respectable academic view that, as the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, ‘Fascism is the aestheticisation of politics.’ Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings were beautiful. It was their context that was ugly. When I raise this subject, Ferry folds his arms and rocks forward as if in a straitjacket. ‘Ah. Please don’t draw me into this again. So boring.’

OK, I say, but I want him to tell me what it felt like to be monstered by the media after so many years of enjoying a good relationship with it. ‘It was like being in some film noir. Bizarre. Very scary actually. And very ugly. There was a feeding frenzy and because there is 24-hour media now…’ He trails off. ‘I’m sort of speechless about it. I don’t want to say anything because… You could be in disguise. One becomes totally untrusting.’ He sighs. ‘It was all so…’ He sighs again. ‘It was so absurd. Anyone who knew me would tell you it was… ridiculous.’ He looks over his shoulder to the table behind him, searching for something. ‘I have this letter about it from a friend. A film-maker… Actually, can we change the subject please?’

OK again. In 2000, Ferry, his wife, Lucy, and two of their sons, were flying from London to Nairobi in a Boeing 747 when a mentally ill passenger dashed into the cockpit and grabbed the controls, forcing the aircraft to plummet. Is it true he told his son off for swearing as the plane plunged? He smiles. ‘Oh yeah. Wouldn’t you? I sort of woke up to hear my son.’

In those seconds when he thought he was going to die, what went through his mind? ‘Did I contemplate my own mortality, you mean? It all happened too quickly for that. The pilot said afterwards we were five seconds away from death. It was the co-pilot who pulled us out, while the pilot was fighting with the intruder. After that, I did consider life was beautiful and rich and in glorious Technicolor. You have to savour every moment. When I’m on a plane now I feel much easier about it because I can’t believe lightning will strike twice. Also, since that episode, I have tried to get a better balance in my life, between work and everything else. But it’s a struggle. Last year, I think I toured too much. The ‘Dylanesque’ album. I was on the road for nine months, on and off. My real life got left behind.’

‘Real life’ meaning? ‘Well, I’m quite curious. I like going to galleries and things. I go out a lot. Not an at-home type. I don’t cook. I like to be entertained.’ While he has been talking the intercom has been buzzing and the phone has been ringing. He now says to the intercom: ‘Hello? Hello I’m busy!’ The phone rings and this time he crosses the room and picks it up. ‘Hi, someone keeps buzzing me and I’m in the middle of an interview. Could you, kind of, shoot them? Thanks.’

An engineer and a producer are waiting for him in the studio, it seems. ‘We’re just working on something; building it up around a piano motif I’ve recorded. Some of the best things I do are where I think I’m not being recorded, so you almost have to trick yourself into recording.’ He’s always making notes for lyrics, he adds. Has notebooks scattered around. ‘I suppose if I ever stop doing it, it will be a sign I’ve grown up.’

He folds and refolds a piece of paper as he talks. He smoothes the table with the side of his hand. He doodles and fidgets. Endearingly, he is not really sure why he has agreed to this interview, as he doesn’t have an album or a tour to promote. But there is a reason of sorts, the film Flashbacks of a Fool. It is directed by Baillie Walsh and stars Daniel Craig as Joe Scott, a decadent English film star who is suddenly tipped into a mid-life crisis by the death of a childhood friend. The flashback of the title is to the early 1970s, with one particular Roxy Music track acting as a trigger to memory in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When Ferry saw a preview of it, he was moved to tears. When he realises I won’t be seeing the film myself for another few days, he asks, fastidious man that he is, if I would like to meet up again afterwards so that I can tell him what I made of it.

And so we do, at his house just off Sloane Square. In the intervening days, another example of his attention to detail, he has sent me a copy of a book I was asking about: Re-make/Re-model, by Michael Bracewell, a history of the cultural influences that led to the formation of Roxy Music. I tell him I liked the film, by the way. It is intelligent, subtle, funny and, above all, evocative. It had me dabbing my eyes, too. Along with David Bowie and George Best, Bryan Ferry seemed to epitomise that glamorous period. ‘I think the girl in the film who mimes to one of my songs was a great improvement on the original,’ he says. ‘I found that quite touching, actually. She looked very good, very much like an idealised Roxy fan with the make-up and the clothes.’

In the film, the teenage Joe has eye-shadow applied by this girl, so that he will look like Ferry. I ask what Ferry’s father, the Durham miner, made of the eye-shadow. He laughs. ‘Not sure, actually. We didn’t discuss it. I didn’t see a lot of my parents around that time. They didn’t move down from the North until about 1976, when I bought my place in Sussex. I was away all the time, so they moved in there and had a new lease of life. They didn’t drive, poor things, so they were kind of stuck there. But they liked to walk and they thought it was paradise, which it was, which it is. The South Downs are beautiful. I don’t think my dad felt uprooted. For him, the world was wherever he was. A vegetable garden was his world. He wasn’t interested in flying to New York or Paris. He was quite a solitary figure. A real one-off. My mother was much more gregarious. She used the telephone.’

Does he look like his father? ‘A bit. I’ve come to resemble him more as I’ve got older. It’s like when I see pictures of my sons and I think they look just like me, or how I did at a certain age.’

He says it is a mild regret to him that his sons don’t know the meaning of hardship; don’t have anything to compare their comfortable lives to, as he does. ‘It’s good to have layers in your life. If I’m in a limousine on the way to the airport, I still haven’t forgotten what it is like to stand in the rain at a north-eastern bus stop for hours. I do have memories of deprivation, but I don’t carry them around like some bitter, Left-wing hammer to beat people on the head with. The human experience is all about contrast.’

He concedes that he made a conscious effort to bury his old identity and invent a new one. ‘But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you see the house I was born in. It wasn’t very nice. And the fact that I wasn’t born into a house with tapestries and paintings makes me appreciate these things more. I do like to surround myself with beautiful things. I’m not into cash or stocks and shares and markets. All I’m interested in are things. Art. They are very important to me.’

This time he makes the tea, a pot of it. As he pours we talk about the book he sent me. In one passage it notes how many gay men there were in ‘the Roxy circle’. Ferry went for an androgynous look, of course, like Bowie. Did he ever find himself questioning his sexuality? ‘Oh God, no, but the art world, the Seventies world, was such a gay world. One of the principal architects of Roxy, that whole movement, was Anthony Price and he never married. He designed the first album cover and was very influential. He’s still a dear friend. Quite a character. That was the time a lot of people like him were coming out. I’m not sure Roxy had much of a gay following though. I think that was more Bowie. Roxy was a group of straight guys from the North with girlfriends.’ He gives his shy grin, eyes downcast. ‘I’m not trying to apologise for being straight, but I did go to co-ed schools. That might have had an influence on me. I think a lot of my gay friends went to single-sex schools.’

And, of course, the album covers were the stuff of heterosexual teenage fantasy. One, ‘Country Life’, featured two scantily clad models. It had feminists in an uproar, resulting in it being sold under brown-paper covers in America. But in Britain people were pretty relaxed about it. I remember it well. Many was the teenage hour I would contemplate it. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘it’s remarkable how liberated the climate was then. There is much more political correctness around today. What you can and cannot say. As I discovered last year. In a way it was much freer in those days. You could speak your mind. You certainly wouldn’t have got told off for talking about Albert Speer’s buildings in the 1970s.’

His main collection of Bloomsbury paintings is in his Sussex house, but he does have some here. ‘That’s a Wyndham Lewis,’ he says, when I ask about them. He stands up and leads the way out into the hall. ‘And that’s a Duncan Grant. Through this is a Paul Nash.’ We talk about Nash’s letters from Passchendaele and discover that both our grandfathers fought there, both for Yorkshire regiments. Mine survived. His died there. ‘I found his name at dusk on a memorial in Belgium,’ Ferry says. ‘It was freezing cold. So many dead. Awful. I became really tearful. I just stood there sobbing.’

In the drawing-room there are pots containing dozens of neatly sharpened pencils. There are pads of paper fanned out, art books and brocaded cushions. Everything is tidy. I don’t see any photographs of the women who have been in his life, but I suppose you need only look at the Roxy album covers for them: Playboy playmate Marilyn Cole, supermodels Amanda Lear (who would later date David Bowie) and Jerry Hall (who left him for Mick Jagger in 1977). The album cover girl he married was Lucy Helmore. That was in 1982. She was the one he had the four sons with. When they divorced, 20 years later, he cited her adultery. She was nevertheless awarded £10million in the settlement, or so the reports said at the time.

Since 2003, he has had been with Katie Turner, who is 35 years his junior. The relationship seems to have been on-off – off last month but apparently on again this, according to the tabloids. The trouble, reportedly, was that she wanted children, whereas he felt he was too old to go through all that again. How’s his love life at the moment, I ask? He laughs and groans and says something that should be quoted only in the context of our previous conversation: ‘Oh dear. I should have been gay, shouldn’t I?’

So the story in the papers? ‘Oh, I didn’t read it. Presumably, it was asking: Will they, won’t they? Don’t know, is the answer. Saw a friend for lunch today who said there was something horrible reported. A friend of mine said… A friend of Katie’s said… But they never reveal who these friends are. Hope your love life is more straightforward than mine.’

Well I married a Catholic, I say, so yes. ‘I was married to a Catholic for 20 years,’ he counters. ‘Didn’t stop our marriage ending in divorce.’

He worries about the effect his divorce might have had on his children, not least because they don’t have one place to go to that they can call home. He was lucky, he says, because he grew up always knowing where his parents were. He is taking two of his sons to Seville tomorrow morning to watch a bullfight. ‘It’s quite festive. You feel in contact with Spanish culture. They respect the bull. Admire it and yet fight it. Very similar to people who hunt foxes. They respect them.’ He grins. ‘I’ve suddenly realised this is a controversial thing to say. I don’t want to be controversial.’

Bryan Ferry controversial? Never! ‘Well, nowadays, it doesn’t take much.’ He folds his arms and puts his feet on the coffee table at the same time, the self-conscious man trying to be open and relaxed. Parking charges and speed cameras are his biggest bugbears at the moment. It’s not that he has become a grumpy old man, he says. He was a grumpy young man. Certainly, there is a contrariness to him, an understated wilfulness. His eldest son, Otis, seems to have inherited it. He was the one who broke into the House of Commons to protest against Labour’s ban on hunting. ‘People usually come up to me and say your son is a hero, give him a hug for me. People like a rebel, I suppose. The hunting ban was mean-spirited. And futile. Because it has made hunting cool.’

He is proud of his son, he adds. But what is it like, after all these years of having the attention himself, suddenly getting his toes trodden on by his son? ‘Very annoying! Especially for someone who has come from the “me” profession. Forget him. What about me!’ The comment suggests that while Ferry may be a reserved man he is not without a dry sense of humour. I ask if he is a Conservative. ‘Never was anything really. Never really voted. Always lived in a huge majority where I don’t think my vote would have made much difference. Where I was born it was a 23,000 Labour majority and now I live in a similar Tory majority. But yes, I am conservative by nature so it would be fair to say I was supporting them now. That said, I always felt politics and art don’t mix very well.’

Not since the Nazis tried it, right? He looks puzzled for a moment then rolls his eyes. ‘Oh. I see. Politics and art. Right, right.’


John Hurt

Everyone seems to have a John Hurt story. A friend of mine who works in the film industry once had to assist him as he made his way unsteadily from a hotel bar to a waiting taxi. A husband and wife I know bumped into him at what might be described as a ‘bohemian’ party in London. Another friend, an artist, invited a few people back to his flat after a night out, only to find that one of them was John Hurt. My friend left the room briefly and, upon his return, found the actor had taken off his clothes. He wanted to be painted in the nude.

But those days are behind him now, apparently; that behaviour a distant memory. Certainly the man I meet in a hotel a short walk from the place he shares with his fourth wife, on the Tottenham Court Road, seems calm and dignified; a little wistful if anything. ‘Walked here,’ he says in his hypnotically low and croaky voice, clipping his sentences. ‘Love walking around London. Rarely get recognised.’

And this despite his melancholic, downturned eyes being pretty recognisable. Small and narrow they are, like raisins set in a craggy rock face. Today he is wearing glasses, which disguise them a bit; and the grey goatee, with what looks like a nicotine stain on its moustache, is a newish addition. At 68 his 5ft 9in frame is wiry and he looks healthy; healthier than he used to. ‘Not short of energy. Reasonably fit. Don’t do anything other than walk. Walk a lot.’

And the drinking? ‘Oh, my drinking days are over.’

When did he last have one? ‘Three, three and half, four years ago, perhaps.’

That was when he got married, near enough. Does he miss it? ‘Not at all, not at all.’ Because it has bad associations? ‘It has good associations for the most part. It’s just times change. You change. When it no longer seemed to help, creatively, I mean, as it unquestionably had helped at one stage, it seemed time to give it up. Besides, attitudes to drinking have changed. Would Churchill have been able to get away with his drinking if he had been a politician today? Yet it really helped him. He was able to make good decisions while drinking. Huge decisions. The crowd I used to drink with, people like [Peter] O’Toole, used it as a fuel for their creativity. We used to go to Muriel’s, near St Martins. Like-minded people congregated there. Francis [Bacon]. Lucian [Freud]. It was a café society really. Muriel would say, “Hello c—y.” A term of affection.’

It’s true, it’s true. The café society part. Hurt belonged to a circle of wild-living and hard-drinking but also highly creative artists and actors. As well as O’Toole there was Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. But Hurt seemed to keep it up, or at least stay alive, for longer than most. He wasn’t particularly pleasant when he was drinking, mind. ‘There were times when he was a boring drunk and prickly, contentious,’ his friend Don Boyd has said. And just before he stopped drinking he was ejected from Spearmint Rhino for ‘boorish behaviour’, which, considering that’s a lap-dancing club, must have been very boorish indeed. He now says he could not have carried on drinking as he did because it would have killed him.

Has the not-drinking left a vacuum in his life? ‘Not really, no. No, I didn’t find any… any difficulty.’

Did he like himself when he was drinking? Long pause. ‘Oh God. This is all going to be about drink, isn’t it?’

He’d rather not talk about that aspect of his past? ‘Not really. I get a bit tired of it. Because it takes up so much space and it’s not important enough for that. My life has changed as my circumstances have changed. So to talk about my drinking now is of no interest to me.’

Which is fair enough. And besides, my favourite John Hurt story is not one of drunken excess but of mistaken identity. The DJ Andy Kershaw told me it. As a young man in 1985, Kershaw was asked to present Live Aid simply because, he said, the organisers knew a live broadcast on that scale would be one cock-up after another, but that with Kershaw’s air of amateurishness and naivety they might just get away with it. At one juncture his producer said into his earpiece that he had to go into the next room to interview John Hurt. ‘John who?’ Kershaw whispered. ‘You know,’ the producer whispered back, ‘The Elephant Man.’ Kershaw duly began his interview: ‘So, tell me about your work with elephants.’ Hurt, being a kind man as well as an old pro, said: ‘Well, when I was working on the film…’ and seamlessly launched into an anecdote.

In Kershaw’s defence, John Hurt didn’t exactly look like John Hurt in that film – just as he didn’t look like John Hurt when he played Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, or the heroin addict in Midnight Express, or the unwitting host for the alien in Alien, or the petulant Caligula in I, Claudius. He is, in other words, a great actor. An actor, moreover, who is always in demand, specialising in eccentrics with sinister charm, in victims, in misfits and lunatics. In the next few months we will see him in the new Indiana Jones movie (he was the only actor who refused to sign up to it without seeing a script) as well as the new Hellboy and, oh, various others, three or four, as he might vaguely say. Cameos mostly.

And that’s the trouble. He is also a promiscuous actor, having been in more than 100 films. This means that for every soaring eagle there is a flightless turkey; for every Alien, a Spaceballs. He says so himself: ‘I’ve done some stinkers in the cinema. You can’t regret it; there are always reasons for doing something, even if it’s just the location.’

Perhaps that will be his excuse for The Oxford Murders, which opens this month. Oxford is a lovely location, after all. The film is about two men – a professor of logic (Hurt) and a student (Elijah Wood, he of Lord of the Rings fame) – who meet for the first time at the moment a body is discovered. A series of murders follows, none of which is, technically, a murder. ‘It’s a murder story without a murder,’ Hurt says. ‘They are intellectual murders that happen in front of your eyes.’ The film amounts to a somewhat clunky bluffer’s guide to Wittgenstein: specifically, the philosopher’s idea that truth lies only in mathematical equations. The mathematics side appealed to Hurt. His father was a mathematician. Got a double first. Became an Anglican vicar.

‘I drove him mad when he was trying to teach me maths,’ Hurt recalls, dragging his fingers through hair so thick it is a global affront to balding men. ‘He was the sort of person who would do an equation for fun. But I couldn’t summon the energy for things I wasn’t interested in. The mind just wandered. Anyway, parents are the worst teachers, if they are good at it and you’re not. My father thought I was the densest offspring he could have produced.’

Hurt’s older brother Michael went to Cambridge. We shall come to him. Hurt, meanwhile, went to an art college in Grimsby and, after that, to St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, where one of the models he painted was Quentin Crisp. He dropped out after a couple of years to go to Rada. That was in 1960. He burnt all his canvases. ‘It was one of those Faustian deals you make with yourself at that age. Shouldn’t have done, really. Didn’t even take photographs of it. But it doesn’t matter. A man is his memory. I’m with Buñuel on that.’

John Hurt seems to have lived an unsettled life, and that was part of the problem in terms of keeping paintings. As well as being on location much of the time, he has lived in Ireland, Kenya (where his ex-wife still lives, with most of his possessions, including his awards) and he has a second home in Ibiza. He has said that it is a good job he travels light: ‘I have to. I’ve given it all away three times. Three ex-wives. I tend not to keep things now. Not a collector of memorabilia.’

Still, he has recently taken up painting again. It seems to have helped fill the bottle-shaped hole in his life. He doesn’t show them though. ‘Quite private. Haven’t got enough, quite honestly. Enough finished, I mean. For an exhibition. I suppose I could exhibit anonymously like Bruce Bernard?… In the end the reason I gave up painting was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to paint. I hugely admired Munch, but Munch knew exactly what he wanted to paint.’

Was it pride? Fear of being criticised? ‘Fear of not being good enough.’ Did that fear ever filter into his acting career? ‘Difficult areas these. Need a psychiatrist to work them out. Don’t know quite. How my film career happened, I don’t know. It was unplanned. I’d been in films and TV throughout the Sixties and early Seventies but it was really The Naked Civil Servant in 1975 that put me on the radar. It was so autre, as Quentin would say. Everyone told me not to do it. It will wreck your career. You’re going too far. You will be typecast as a homosexual after this. At the time it was considered so outrageous. The mailbag I got after making that?… The people?…’

Homophobic insults? ‘No. Gratitude. It changed people’s lives. It was fascinating for me to find out how all these men had been living with this secrecy.’

At the moment he is planning a sequel. In negotiation. Can’t really talk about it. ‘It will be a bookend but with a different aspect. The whole period in New York. Instead of dealing with the abuse, Quentin is dealing with sycophancy and fame. On a personal level I do have admiration for him. He is a remarkable man. He had his weaknesses like anyone, but he chose a route that was as difficult as it is possible to chose. He was both oblique and objective about my performance. He said,’ – he adopts a camp and wispy voice – ‘Mr Hurt is my representative here on earth.’

He is intrigued by the extent to which attitudes have changed. ‘Society is constantly recalibrating, redefining what it considers to be moral and immoral. Look at homophobia. Attitudes have changed 180 degrees. Family life has totally changed as a concept. Divorce is a commonplace. You almost wonder when you get married how long it will be before the divorce.’ Well, he might. ‘Oh no, not me. Not any more. I’m wonderfully married. Enjoying it.’ He flicks imaginary dust from his trouser leg.

His wife is Anwen Rees-Meyers, some 25 years his junior. She is a former actress and classical pianist who now directs advertisements. They have no plans to have children, not least because he already has two grown-up sons from a previous marriage. I ask what is he like to live with. Does he help with the housework? The cooking? ‘I’ve always done that. Think I’m probably easier to live with now than I was before. I don’t know. Maybe I’m in denial.’

What did his father make of his divorces? ‘He wouldn’t marry anyone who had had a divorce. I shared his religious views until I was about 16, then I started questioning. I thought, how can this part be right if that is wrong? Where does religion come from? It seemed clear to me that religion came from man’s impatience, his absolute need to answer the mysteries immediately. Can’t sit back and say, “I don’t understand that.” Instead you have to have voices coming through from the heavens and the word becoming God and so on. With Muslims it is Allah speaking through the Prophet.

“That’s why religion causes so much war. Religious people know deep down that that is the most vulnerable area of their lives and when others question it they are liable to hit out and feel insulted. You know it is absolutely without proof yet people still commit themselves totally to this belief. They cannot refute it because it is so central to their lives.’

For the first time in the interview, Hurt has dropped his calm demeanour and become animated. He clasps his hands. He sits forward. This, clearly, is a subject that vexes him, it being an uncomfortable reminder of his distant relationship with his father.

Yet if religion cast a long shadow over his life, it cast a much longer one over his brother’s. ‘He converted to Catholicism to become a monk at Downside. Then he jumped over the wall and married a nun and that was a disaster that ended in annulment. Then he met a 19-year-old girl, had three children, the youngest of whom is now 26, then that marriage was annulled too and he went back to the Benedictine monkhood. Fascinating character.’

I’ll say. Especially in terms of his utter rejection of his father’s Protestantism. ‘Well quite.’ And if his brother has had doubts about a life of celibacy once?… ‘Yes, I’ve had conversations with him about this. I know there are doubts there, but somehow he keeps them out. This was when we were younger – I liked to stir things up a bit.’

One of Hurt’s best performances in recent years was as the philandering politician Alan Clark. Like Clark, he has been targeted by the press over drink and marital split-ups, once, memorably, with the headline, ‘Elephant Man packs trunk’. Clark supposedly had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. Has Hurt considered the possibility that he might have one, too? ‘Quick blessing at the end, you mean? If it did happen I would know it was my weakness rather than a strength. I hope I shall have the courage to say, “Vroom! Here we go! Let’s become different molecules!” I saw the doubt in my father’s eyes. He was 95. I was with him almost when he died.’

That was in 1999. He thinks his father probably suffered from acute mood swings, which were glossed over within the family. He also thinks he may have inherited them. ‘Ups and downs’, he calls them. One of the worst downs came in 1983, on the day he saw Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, his girlfriend of 16 years, killed in a riding accident in Oxfordshire. His horse bolted. She went after it but lost her stirrup and was thrown, landing on her head on the road.

His mood swings were worse in those days. ‘Drink doesn’t make you feel better,’ he has said of that period in his life. ‘It just exacerbates the mood you are in.’ His wild behaviour may have looked like fun on the outside, he added, but actually it was a sign of a distressed person looking for something he couldn’t find. Eventually he did find it, it seems: in the world of acting, of pretending to be someone else. ‘Reality is dull. I’m complete when I’m working. It isn’t work.’

Some actors, of course, become actors because they never felt loved for themselves as children. With this in mind, I ask if his urge to perform grew out of watching his father give sermons every Sunday. ‘I suppose he did hold a congregation the way an actor holds an audience. A similar contract was entered into.’

Though he has spent much of his adult life in front of a camera, he can still feel a self-consciousness about it. ‘It varies. Ebbs and flows, like confidence. That spark is not always there. You have to find a way round that if inspiration is not with you. Acting is an imaginative exercise. It would be odd if you didn’t try to identify with the roles you play, but I think I can differentiate between where my imagination is leading me and where I actually am. I see myself as an interpretative actor rather than a creative one. And I quite like to be directed. There are great talents out there. Spielberg, of course. But Indiana Jones is a tried and tested franchise. Lot of build-up. Let’s hope the public like it. It will be a guarantee for the first weekend. Whether it has legs will remain to be seen. But there is also the likes of Guillermo del Toro. A great talent. As you will see with Hellboy II.’

Does he intimidate younger directors? ‘I hope not. I try not to intimidate. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could be intimidated by me. I wasn’t like Larry. When I played the Fool to his Lear, the scene on the heath, I said, “Watch out here, it’s slippy,’ and he hissed: “Is it.” And I said, “All right, slip over then and break your flipping neck, dear.” ‘

It is an endearing anecdote; perhaps it’s the one he told Andy Kershaw at Live Aid all those years ago. It reminds you of his longevity and his range. It also reminds you that John Hurt is one of the least acquisitive actors in the industry. He probably preferred being a Fool to a Lear. Less obvious. More quirky. He doesn’t seem overtly ambitious in that way. He covets few roles, chases few scripts, declines to build up myths about himself. Just waited for things to come to him, as with his answers to the eternal questions.

Unexpectedly, for an actor, he even seems to have lacked vanity. For many years, I have read, he refused to have a mirror in the house. Perhaps it was simply that he didn’t like what he saw in it – until he stopped drinking.

‘The Oxford Murders’ opens on 25 April; ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ is scheduled for release next month; ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’, is scheduled for August

The Naked Civil Servant.’Half the stuff I have done which has been successful would never have been made if it had been shown to focus groups. ”Elephant Man” would never have been made. Imagine the pitch for ”Naked Civil Servant”. A self-confessed homosexual who crusades for gay rights. They’d say f— off. You have to be brave’.

The Elephant Man.’Mel Brooks [producer] had the vision, actually. When I read the script it made me cry. I was cast because David Lynch had seen me in ”I, Claudius” and ”Naked Civil Servant”. He encouraged me not to do the same thing, to try something different, so I worked on the sweet voice and demeanour. Nowadays directors want youto do what you’vedone before’.

Love and Death on Long Island.’Great title, super script. Richard Kwietniowski took seven years to get it made. I suppose that was better than the20-odd years it took to make ”Gandhi”. When Dickie Attenborough was telling me it had taken him 20 years to get it off the ground, I said: ”You did that one? I thought it was David Lean.” He had a bit of a sense of humour failure about that’.