Sheila Hancock

In 2002 Sheila Hancock was left heartbroken by the death of her beloved husband, John Thaw. Eight years on and enjoying a new lease of life, she discusses sports cars, swearing on live TV and why she’s saying ‘yes’ to everything

The Sheila Hancock who wrote what amounted to a ‘textbook on grief’ after her husband John Thaw died of cancer in 2002, seems only distantly related to the woman who is sitting opposite me on a sofa – her sofa – today. She looks mentally and physically strong, though that may be to do with her erect posture and those sharp, bird-of-prey features of hers.

In The Two of Us, the first of two best-selling volumes of memoir, she described her depression after her husband’s death. ‘He was my whole life.’ Everything was in reference to him. ‘Without him I don’t exist.’

Thousands of readers wrote to tell her how moving they found the book and how they could relate to her predicament. Now she has moved on, literally. Her new house overlooks the Thames at Hammersmith. She sold her old one in Wiltshire because it had too many memories of Thaw. Also, she realised that the lowing of cows was depressing her and that she needed the hum of the city, the traffic, the planes, the boats.

‘On Boat Race day, mine is the popular house,’ she says, gesturing towards her balcony. ‘This is the corner where they all capsize.’ The early 20th-century paintings along one wall have also been bought recently. ‘They were a present to myself,’ she says, ‘courtesy of Sister Act.’ Also, parked outside is a new Jaguar sports car. Not the sort of car you associate with a 77-year-old grieving widow, not one with seven grandchildren anyway.

Part of her rehabilitation has been saying ‘yes’ to things, she says, such as the chancellorship of Portsmouth University and the above-mentioned Sister Act, the West End musical in which she is currently starring as Mother Superior, the one for which she was recently nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award (she didn’t mind not winning, having already won one for Cabaret when she was a tender 73).

And over the winter she was filming a documentary about the suffragettes, another thing she said ‘yes’ to. ‘It was so cold,’ she recalls. ‘I couldn’t believe this pinched old face I saw on the screen.’ Oh, and she is about to fly to China for another filming project.

‘Normally people my age are content to put their feet up and watch the telly, wear Crimplene trousers and baggy jumpers. But I need challenges. I’d seize up if I didn’t do things.’ No afternoon naps then? ‘Sometimes I look with envy at women who have naps, but it’s not right for me yet. There will come a time. I always get a shock when people come round who have been at school with me and I see what I should look like.’

Another, perhaps more surprising, thing she said yes to was the frothy and camp Over the Rainbow, a search for a ‘Dorothy’ to star in a West End version of The Wizard of Oz, hosted by Graham Norton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hancock was a judge on the show and, with her always polite but sometimes arch remarks, she proved a hit with critics and audiences alike, even when she had a dig at them. ‘Don’t get carried away by the crowd,’ she told one young hopeful. ‘Every time you sing loudly they applaud.’

‘It was the highest camp in the world,’ she says now. ‘When the girls went off in that moon! Hysterical! I’m told I’ve become a gay icon, which I find flattering. I put it down to having this image as a strong and bossy woman.’

Still, it seemed an unlikely departure for her, given how serious-minded she could be in her memoirs, and given that for most of her career she was performing Shakespeare and Chekhov at the RSC and the National. Indeed we soon find ourselves on the subject of politics. Though she has always been Left-wing, she says, she likes the idea of the coalition Government.

‘I think it’s because I’m a Quaker. Everything at Quaker meetings is done through discussion, and I like that. We don’t vote. Everybody comes to a compromise or an agreement. I joined the Society about 20 years ago. I was an attender before that. No one is in charge. No rules, well, only loose ones and no hierarchy. Total equality. Living simple lives. Good people.’

Is she a good person? Has she led a good life? ‘Me? Oh no. Not like them. As far as I know I haven’t done anything really, really bad. But I find it hard to get rid of material things. I mean, my car! That is so not Quaker. I am trying to pare right down. Before I die I want to get shot of everything.’ Perhaps she could put it towards the national debt.

‘The recession is going to hit us all hugely and I’ve already lost quite a lot of money. It doesn’t alarm me because as a I child I lived frugally and could do so again. John was the same. When I was in rep I always lived in digs. For years actors never had mortgages, you see, because we didn’t have the money to put down. We were all rogues and vagabonds so we didn’t have to worry about what our peers thought. And I still always get clothes second-hand, sometimes after I’ve worn them on telly. I don’t mind investing in things like paintings because they can be sold. I seldom buy things for pleasure.’

She still has the house she and her husband bought in France, but she wanted to move from her old house in Wiltshire because it was full of memories of Thaw. Were they unhappy memories?

‘Our marriage wasn’t always plain sailing, but it wasn’t that. It’s more that I’m a mover on. I’ve done that all my life. When you have children your life changes.

‘Life is about change. Someone dies; you have a time of grieving and then you have to get back to your own life. I have sad memories all the time driving around London, but also happy memories that leave you a little sad because the person they were about is not there to share them with, be it my first husband Alex, or my mother, or John. I sometimes find myself in tears.

But I have a life to continue. I often say to people who write to me: you must fill your day, visit museums and galleries, take evening classes.’ Write a memoir? ‘Well, yes, but I suppose that’s not for everyone. When I was writing I thought people would be interested in our lives as actors. What I didn’t get was that the grief would be what readers related to.’

Her unflinching, cold-eyed honesty took a lot of readers by surprise. She left nothing out, not even the afternoon shortly before her husband’s death when they had sex in a Gloucestershire field, and she accidentally squashed his chemotherapy tube. ‘I didn’t want to censor it and make it nice, so I went back to my diary and quoted from that. I had gone through a dreadful period of grieving, when I was almost clinically depressed and I felt bleugh – horrid, horrid, horrid – and I thought “I don’t want to go on”.

‘Gradually, I went travelling and now my life couldn’t be fuller.’ Does she in some way feel liberated by being on her own? ‘Yes, there is an element of that. You don’t have anyone else to feel responsible for. I would have to turn work down because John was away and I had to look after the children. Now I can be utterly selfish. I live a totally selfish life.’ Has it made her less sentimental? I only ask because of the way she turned that cold eye of hers on to the budding Dorothys on BBC TV.

‘They were choosing to go in the profession and they had to find out whether they could survive the ordeal. The talent is important but it is just as important to have resilience, because you are choosing a career that is all about criticism, from brutal casting directors to brutal critics in the press. I try to be constructive. There was one girl who kept turning away from the camera all the time. It’s the Nick Clegg thing about looking into the lens.

‘The following week she did it properly and she was much better. But you have to remember it’s Saturday night entertainment. It’s not a deeply intellectual show.’ I ask if she developed any coping mechanisms for the criticism. ‘Yes, I don’t read reviews, because they will put you off your stride. Even if they are good. It can make you self-conscious. Anyway, you always know if they have been good, bad or indifferent because of the atmosphere the next day.’

Though she doesn’t read reviews, she did always listen to her husband’s advice. ‘He was my support because I trusted him implicitly. It was mutual, too. He would listen to my analysis about his work. I knew more about theatre and he knew more about television. Technically, as a television actor, he was brilliant. Such honesty. He was a good critic of work on screen. I would always be depressed if he didn’t think something I had done was good.’

And she has known what the whip of theatre criticism feels like. When, in 1965, she opened on Broadway in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, the New York Times declared: ‘Throw this cesspit back into the Atlantic.’ The American audiences came around, and she was eventually nominated for a Tony for that role.

She has fond memories of that time. ‘Orton was wonderful. I adored him. So decadent. So naughty. A naughty boy. My mother came out to New York with my young child and would make Orton a Sunday lunch. If she had only known what he was up to. But I suppose she wouldn’t have understood it, that gay world.’

Hancock herself was more hardened to camp humour, not least because one of her earliest West End roles after graduating from Rada had been with Kenneth Williams in One Over the Eight. That was in 1961. ‘Back then, homosexuality was against the law. I had lots of gay friends and it was a nightmare for them, one of them even committed suicide.

‘Kenneth was made to feel so ashamed. Reading his diaries, it was appalling how he suffered. But gay men felt safe in my profession because we didn’t give a damn. Now most people are tolerant. I think David Cameron is genuinely ashamed of the past homophobia of the Tory party.’

Hancock went on to appear with Williams in Carry on Cleo in 1964. ‘Such a low budget but great fun. The filming was so quick. Everything would be done on the first take. That was tricky for me because I was having to breastfeed between takes.’ Did that make her an early feminist, the working mother? ‘Well, I certainly didn’t play the little wifey at home. But later, when I was married to John, I did lose some of my own identity. And when he died I did find I was less confident in social situations.’

She says she is still learning how to enter a room on her own, because throughout her life she always had a man to hold her hand. In Just Me, her second memoir, she poignantly described her first holidays on her own: the embarrassment of learning to eat alone in a restaurant, the invisibility of the single woman to a professional waiter.

‘A big part of you dies with your husband,’ she says. ‘I try not to think about what life would have been like if John had still been alive. Not necessarily better, because I have managed to make a life that is exciting. But I do want to show him the book, show him how well it did. He would have been proud of himself. I asked him to write his life story when he was dying – though he didn’t know he was at the time – and he said: “No one will be interested in my life”, and I said: “Oh, come on”. The only reason I felt I had permission to write that book about him after he died was that he said: “OK kid, I’ll think about it.”’

Thaw, she says, had no idea how remarkable it was to have had such a distinguished career after such an unpromising start in life. ‘It was quite a journey. He grew up in poverty and went on to break the mould in television, first with The Sweeney then with Morse, but he had no idea how good he was. He would say: “Yeah but it’s only telly. I haven’t played Lear.”’

Her memoir is frank about Thaw and his alcoholism. Did she agonise about shedding so much light on their private world? ‘Yes I did. But I figured so many people knew about it that if I didn’t write about it then people would think the book dishonest. I checked with the girls first, our daughters, and they actually thought I’d been too soft on him!’ Thaw and Hancock had a daughter each when they met and a third together.

‘What was remarkable was that he beat the drinking in the last years of his life. He hadn’t realised that the depression he suffered was to do with his drinking.’ I ask whether, when she was writing the book, she felt angry with him once more for his behaviour? ‘Not really. I did feel anger at the time, but then I wasn’t easy to live with either. My father was a drinker and both my husbands were drinkers.’ Her father was a publican and her first husband, Alec Ross, was an actor.

They married in 1954 and he died of cancer in 1971. Two years later, she married Thaw. ‘I think women like me are often drawn to men like that. And I had to change my ways before John could change his. Sometimes you support people in their addiction and it was only when I went to Al-Anon (a charity that supports the families of alcoholics) that I could see my part in it. With our endless, all-night talks, I was encouraging him. I had to learn to back off and let him deal with his own addiction rather than off loading it on me.’

Thaw sounds like a force of nature, wildly romantic and unpredictable. She must miss the chaos almost as much as him? ‘That kind of dramatic up and down you do get used to, yes. But I’m constantly telling girls, don’t sneer at boring. Life with a boring man can be beautiful and lovely. But I know there is something in me that needs some kind of volatility, not knowing what’s around the corner.’

What was around the corner in 1987 was a diagnosis of breast cancer. Her husband was less than supportive, unable to cope with it. They split up briefly, not for the first or last time. ‘That was the drinking. He couldn’t look at things. He was terrified I was going to die. It was like getting rid of me before it happened.’

When Thaw was ill, she went to his every appointment and all his chemo treatments. She remembers once he embraced her and said: ‘I am so ashamed that I didn’t do this for you.’ But she made a full recovery. She is a survivor. Presumably every day must have felt like a bonus since then? ‘I wish I could say that was true, but I don’t learn by experience. If I’m honest, I fill my life out of practicality.

‘I’m very fearful. I get over one thing and assume there will be something else around the corner. I woke up with an ache in my foot this morning and thought, oh here it is, old age. Because we do disintegrate. I often accept work because I think I can’t put it off for a year.’

Punishing work too, given she has always suffered from debilitating stage fright. This aspect of her personality is hard to square with her no-nonsense, headmistress manner. Yet for all her calm professionalism, her meeting of challenges with a steady eye, Hancock is easily spooked and probably a bit neurotic, like a retired thoroughbred racehorse who can’t stop herself from galloping in the direction of the finish line whenever she glimpses a starting flag.

It is telling, reading back over this interview, how often she uses the word depression. It makes me wonder: is she addicted to the adrenalin of stage fright because she worries that life will feel flat, empty and, well, depressing without it? ‘In theory, but my goodness I do loathe that fear. With Sister Act, when we were about to open, I was lying on my bed thinking: “I cannot go through with this.” I was actually vomiting with fear. Even when it’s happening, I am thinking: “This is stupid. Irrational.” There are people dying and starving in the world.

‘But even when you say you have no reason to be frightened, it doesn’t help. It used to ruin performances, but now I go to see a hypnotist before a show. The main fear is drying up, especially in a musical because you can’t improvise your way out of it. Even when you know your lines backwards there is the danger of going on automatic pilot and suddenly realising you don’t know what comes next.’

Does she get nervous about live television as well? ‘It’s a different kind of nervousness. On Over the Rainbow, I was nervous about swearing, because I swear a lot, and badly, and the BBC is really hot about it. I said: “Eyes, teeth and tits” in one episode and that worried them. On Dorothy, I usually wanted to say: “Oh for f—’s sake, pull yourself together!”

I think, as I get on, I will become one of those older women who wear purple and suddenly go berserk and obscene.’ She laughs, realising she has just described the character she played in the Catherine Tate Show, the sister of the swearing ‘Nan’. ‘Or maybe the opposite will happen to me. Maybe when I become demented I will become very prim and proper.’


Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s radical views on language found him global fame. 50 years on, the professor disusses death threats, the internet and why he thinks Obama was marketed like a brand of toothpaste.

In an almost empty hotel bar, around the corner from the British Museum, an 81-year-old American professor is sipping tea and talking in a monotone so muted I wonder whether he is having me on. I soon conclude that he isn’t; that he doesn’t do jokes; that he, Noam Chomsky, does not, in fact, possess a sense of humour.

Sacha Baron Cohen came to the same conclusion when, as Ali G, he asked Chomsky: ‘How many words does you know, and what is some of them?’ Chomsky didn’t even smile, he simply informed his interviewer how many words the average Westerner knows, and then, as requested, revealed what is some of them.

Baron Cohen’s question may have been amusing but it wasn’t entirely random. Chomsky found global fame in the Sixties, in the unlikely field of linguistics. He more or less founded the discipline, becoming to it what Freud became to psychoanalysis and Einstein to cosmology.

In contradiction of the prevailing ‘behaviourist’ view that language was learned, Chomsky argued that the human mind is actually hard-wired for grammatical thought. The way children successfully acquire their native language in so little time suggested, for him, that the structures of language were innate, rather than acquired, and that all languages shared common underlying rules. This he called Universal Grammar but don’t worry, I won’t be testing you later, and linguistics is not what this interview is about.

Although I should perhaps add that the debate about language has moved on since Chomsky’s theories in the Sixties. And Chomsky has moved on, too. In fact he is better known these days as a political activist. The man the American Right love to hate. The American Left aren’t exactly wild about him either.

As a self-styled anarchist and Enlightenment liberal, he collects political enemies the way sticky paper collects flies.

You somehow imagine that a man with his rhetorical clout and reputation will have a booming voice, or at least some basic oratory skills. Yet here he is, barely 4ft away from me, and I am straining to hear him. It’s nothing to do with his age or health – he is a slender, fit looking, slightly stooped man with greying wavy hair, a diffident manner and a tendency to glance sideways at you through wire-rimmed glasses.

It is more that his voice is a croak that begins at the back of the throat and barely has the energy to leave his mouth. When I put my tape recorder down on the table in front of him he says – sotto voce – ‘You won’t be able to hear me. No one can. I once did a three-hour interview with Radio Oxford only to be told the microphone hadn’t picked me up.’

He is over here to give a lecture at the London School of Economics, and he will have a microphone for that. Over there, he is still an emeritus professor at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for 55 years. And he is still being interviewed regularly on radio and television. Still addressing public meetings. Still writing polemical books (these days about world affairs). And perhaps what his voice shows, actually, is that he is used to being listened to, used to crowded rooms falling silent when he begins to talk.

‘I am no Barack Obama,’ he says to me now. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’

Unlike Obama, Chomsky has never needed votes. Yet, as an academic, he has always attracted acolytes. He also attracts conspiracy-theory nuts by the thousand, giving foam-flecked bloggers the world over a sense that their paranoid ramblings have a whiff of academic respectability. ‘Yes but I have never wanted them,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed at MIT. The reason I like it there is the intellectual culture. You don’t lecture people, you get them to question, to think for themselves, not follow. I don’t want followers.’

He gets them anyway. To judge by his sales figures (his pamphlet on the meaning of 9/11 sold upwards of half a million copies), the followers are an ever-growing number. In the build up to the Iraq war, indeed, a simple piece of graffiti began appearing on campuses across the world: ‘Read Chomsky’. And he is hero-worshipped by the antiglobalisation movement. Bono calls him the ‘Elvis of Academia’ and ‘rebel without a pause’.

Other prominent disciples include (or included) John Pilger, Michael Moore and the late Harold Pinter. The usual suspects perhaps, but there can’t be many silver-haired professors who have appeared on stage with Rage Against the Machine. And it is not just the young and trendy who seemingly have to go through a ‘Chomsky phase’.

Even ‘the corporate media’ he professes to despise has been known to sing his praises. The New Yorker calls him ‘One of the finest minds of the 20th century’, while The New York Times has labelled him ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’.

But there is also a hint of sulphur in the air that swirls around him. A collection of essays called The Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, analyses Chomsky’s anti-Americanism and concludes that he is man with a ‘deep contempt for the truth’. The Left-wing Nation magazine, meanwhile, called him ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’. Back in the early Sixties, long before opposition to the Vietnam War became a fashionable cause for the bien pensants, Chomsky was threatened with imprisonment for organising demonstrations and withholding his taxes.

He argued that the war was being fought to halt the spread of independent nationalism, not communism. Forty years on, after the attack on the twin towers, he became the professorial point-man for the campus opposition to the Bush administration.

Touring America’s universities as he preached the cause of radical dissent, he argued that the attacks were ultimately caused by US policies and were rooted in the ‘fury and despair’ of the Arab world.

While he is keen to remind you that he has always described 9/11 as an atrocity, he adds that it pales next to the West’s ‘deep-seated culture of terrorism’. The US, to him, is the ultimate rogue nation. He even goes so far as to call it genocidal.

‘We should recognise that in much of the world the United States is regarded as a leading terrorist state, with good reason,’ he says. Most controversially, he has argued that every post-war American president would have been hanged for war crimes under the Nuremberg Laws.

Though he has had dozens of books published, and though he has a sizeable platform in the print and broadcast media, he still likes to play the martyr, the wounded outsider, the victim of witch-hunts. Surely, I say, it is a credit to the very American way of life he so often criticises that he is still seen as being part of the liberal establishment. He is still, after all, a professor at one of the leading science universities in the world.

Even in the Bush era, which was the most restrictive since McCarthy, he was still allowed to say whatever he wanted. ‘I think that freedom is a lot to do with my association with MIT,’ he says. ‘It may have been funded by the Pentagon in the Fifties and Sixties, yet it was also the centre of the resistance movement. It had autonomy.’

He’s not kidding. When Nixon drew up his ‘enemies list’ in the early Seventies it featured dozens of individuals but only one institution, MIT. Chomsky seems to have more respect for enemies like Nixon, who acknowledge he is an enemy, than supposed allies who subvert him more subtly and pretend he is their friend.

‘If you don’t like what someone has to say, argue with them,’ he says. ‘Don’t ban them. In the US they have a corporate media system and they have a narrow spectrum that they will tolerate. I have the honour of being identified in print as the one person that they will never allow to appear on NPR [National Public Radio], the so-called liberal radio. I would appear on Fox News more easily than I would NPR. It’s not censorship, it’s part of the narrow liberal intellectual culture.’

And it gets personal in the States. What about his dust-up with that one-time liberal pin-up and fellow traveller Christopher Hitchens? As the post-9/11 arguments raged, it should be explained, Hitchens accused Chomsky of ‘making excuses for theocratic fascism’ and exercising ‘moral equivalency’ in his discussions of 9/11 and US imperialism. ‘In some awful way, Chomsky’s regard for the underdog has mutated into support for mad dogs,’ Hitchens said.

When I ask Chomsky how he answers Hitchens’ charge that he is an appeaser of Islamic fascism, he (disingenuously) denies that he knew that Hitchens had said that. ‘He said that did he? I haven’t read him for 15 years.’

It is sometimes said that Chomsky would be a better debater if he occasionally allowed that his enemies acted out of moral convictions as heartfelt as his own. He’s genial in person, yet his writing hectors when it should persuade.

‘This is not complicated,’ he will write. ‘You can be a pure hypocrite or you can look at events honestly.’ His sentences brook no deviation. ‘No one with even a shred of honesty would disagree’ is a characteristic bit of Chomskyan throat-clearing. In linguistics, this style of his might be called ‘the attenuated sympathetic’. But perhaps his position is more nuanced than my pen-portrait of him allows.

Chomsky may be considered a dissident in America, and a ‘traitor’ to some, but he is not a pacifist. Though he considered the dropping of the atom bomb ‘one of the most unspeakable crimes in human history’, he thought the US role in the Second World War justified, not least because he is Jewish.

He encountered anti-Semitism as a child, but never told his father, a rabbinical scholar who worked on medieval grammar. Theirs was a pretty academic household, it seems. Chomsky was 10 when he had his first article published, about the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe.

‘Certainly I was inside a political culture,’ he has said. ‘First generation Jewish working class in Philadelphia. There were strikes and rallies, and so on. I remember at the age of five travelling on a trolley car with my mother past a group of women on a picket line at a textile plant, seeing them being viciously beaten by security people. So that kind of thing stayed with me.’

Nowadays he is sometimes the one being accused of anti-Semitism, in light of his criticisms of Israel. ‘If you do a Google search you will probably read a lot of stuff about how I am someone who wants to kill all the Jews and hates the United States. The internet has compromised the quality of debate.

‘It is basically positive but it has its downsides. If something comes to mind, people just put it up on the internet without even thinking about it. I get a ton of mail. It used to be hard copy, now it is mostly email and the quality is so different now. With letters, a lot of stuff is cut out, the stuff that has just popped into someone’s mind. With email they send that stuff without thinking. There is more spontaneity to it but less contemplation.’

There may be a quiet anger and testiness just below his surface but, in terms of his public persona, Professor Chomsky is diffidence personified, and he is generous with his time. He diligently answers the thousands of emails sent to him every week, a laborious task that eats up several hours a day – and he usually signs off simply with ‘Noam’. He recognises no hierarchies, according to his assistant. He is wearing jeans today. This is because he considers them ‘unhierarchical’. Unlike suits.

Chomsky’s new book is called Hopes and Prospects and is about the fallout from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also tackles the financial bail-out. Let’s start with that, I say. Eighteen months on, Goldman Sachs is back with the biggest bonuses ever. What happened to the meltdown?

‘To them nothing happened. The perpetrators of the crisis emerged more powerful, richer and better prepared for the next crisis, which they are creating. They are discussing it openly, the people called in as economic advisers to Obama.’

I take it he didn’t buy into Obama’s message of hope and change. ‘Elections in the United States are expensive extravaganzas run by the public relations industry. The PR people looked at the polls and picked slogans accordingly.

‘Did you know Obama won the best campaign of the advertising industry in 2008? It was politicians being marketed as a product, like toothpaste. What does that have to do with democracy? If you read his statement you find yourself asking what was the hope? What was the change? These were empty words.’

The special relationship isn’t so special any more under Obama; he doesn’t care what Britain thinks, is that correct? ‘The best definition of the special relationship came at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. America was making decisions which would have affected England, caused its destruction, but without consulting Macmillan, the then prime minister.

‘They decided not to let Britain know what they were planning to do because they decided they were not sufficiently rational to make the right decisions. Things weren’t so different 40 years on. Bush considered Blair his lieutenant, not his partner. The US told Britain it had to support what they were going to do in the UN otherwise they were “irrelevant”. That was the word that was used. Does that seem special to you?’

Does Chomsky consider Blair a war criminal? ‘Of course. Have you seen the text of the Nuremburg tribunal? Worth looking at. It defines aggression as the supreme international crime. Different from other crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows.

‘At Nuremburg the chief prosecutor Justice Jackson said: “We are handing the defendants a poisoned chalice and if we ever sip from it ourselves we have to accept the same consequences.” Being hanged and being considered as a potential president of the EU, as Tony Blair was, are not the same consequences.’

Chomsky has had many death threats over the years, including one from the Unabomber. But did things get particularly ugly for him after 9/11? ‘It was much worse in the Sixties. I had regular death threats. I remember once the MIT police called me up and said they had received a bomb threat. It was aimed at my home. It is open and easier now. It is a completely different atmosphere. People are more tolerant towards activists these days.’

Like that other scion of the left, Tony Benn, Chomsky has a tendency to flap his hands as he talks, birds trapped behind a pane of glass. Benn was devoted to his wife Caroline, whom he married in 1949 (she died in 2000). They had four children and many grandchildren. Chomsky was devoted to his wife Carol whom he married in 1949 (she died in 2008). They had three children and there are photographs of his grandchildren on his desk at MIT. And above his door is a large photo of Bertrand Russell, a fellow libertarian pin-up.

Having said there would be no more linguistics, I find myself back on the subject. What does Chomsky make of stories about undergraduates at British universities having to be taught grammar in their freshman years? To a linguist, one whose own literary style favours phrases such as ‘generative transformational grammar’, that must seem an abomination.

‘Yes, there is that. It is probably down to the texting culture. The use of textonyms and so on. But it is also to do with the way young people read on screen. The digital age cuts back reading and, as a consequence, young people are losing the ability to think seriously. They get distracted more easily, breaking off to check an email. Speed-reading is exactly the wrong thing to do. You have to think about what you are reading.’ He gives me his sideways look. ‘You have to ponder.’