Esther Duflo

Meet Esther Duflo, the rock-climbing professor tipped for a Nobel prize, whose radical thinking on global poverty has earned her the ear of the world’s most powerful politicians and philanthropists. Just don’t ask her to crack a joke.

I am trying to decide whether or not that French word froideur applies to Esther Duflo.

Certainly, she doesn’t do jokes and the closest she has come to one in public was when she made a speech at a conference in California last year and started it by warning her audience, ‘I’m short. I’m French. I have a pretty strong French accent.’

Well, she is indeed petite. And she does have a strong French accent, despite living in America for the best part of 15 years.

But froideur? I think it might be more diffidence and briskness of manner, because she does smile occasionally; it’s just she does it in a slightly suspicious way, as if she fears you might be after her teeth.

Also there is something quite severe about her dark, no-nonsense hair and her dark, no-nonsense clothes.

But here I am frivolously talking about her hair and her clothes when I haven’t even mentioned her area of expertise – and the reason for her lack of frivolity – which is global poverty, specifically why development programmes in poor countries often fail and why they sometimes succeed.

At 38, Esther Duflo is a professor of development economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a mouthful usually shortened to MIT.

At the age of 29 she had her pick of Ivy League professorships, including Princeton and Yale, but went with MIT partly because it offered to fund her own research laboratory, based mostly in India, to the tune of $300,000.

Why is she in such demand? She is tipped as a future Nobel prizewinner, having already won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is considered the ‘Nobel-in-waiting’.

She has also won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, known as the ‘genius fellowship’. And as well as being granted the unusual honour of addressing a committee of the General Assembly at the United Nations, she also has the ear of Bill Gates.

In France, meanwhile, she is considered to be ‘the new face of Left Bank intellectualism’. Two books based on her lectures have become bestsellers there.

Her latest, Poor Economics, co-authored by the MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee, is aimed at a broader readership – more along the lines of Freakonomics – and already it is making waves in development circles.

It is always dangerous for journalists to try to summarise the clever ideas of clever people, but here goes.

Duflo is what is known as a ‘randomista’. Her radical approach has been to introduce to her field the randomised control trials used in testing new medicine. She does her research in villages in India, Ghana and Kenya.

An example. One of the causes of poverty in developing countries is a lack of education. It can prevent parents from immunising their children, say, or using mosquito nets.

But Duflo is a great believer in questioning received wisdoms that rely on hypothetical arguments, by finding practical ways to test whether they are true.

Could it be that poor people don’t value mosquito nets because they are given away free? She tried charging a nominal fee for them and found, counterintuitively, that many more people were prepared to use them.

‘What was a little bit new about our approach was that we collected a lot of data. We thought, “You don’t have to wait for the data to come to you, or always talk about hypothetical cases. You can conduct your own experiments.”’

Given the scale of the problem – almost a billion people in the world are surviving on the equivalent of 50p a day – does she ever feel like giving up in despair?

‘No, you have to be optimistic and you have to take the view that a bit better is better than nothing. Also, if an experiment doesn’t work, that can be a useful result because it means you don’t have to apply it on a world scale only for it to fail.’

The poor can often be very clever in the way they spend what little money they have, she believes, because for them it is a matter of life and death.

We patronise them, moreover, even though they often think like we in the rich countries think. ‘Take the case of the MMR vaccine in Britain.

‘Parents started to believe that it was linked to autism and refused to immunise their children. They thought they were doing the best for their children but actually they were questioning the authorities without any scientific ability.

‘This was unusual, though, because what normally happens in the West is that we take things like this on trust. You believe your doctor. In the developing world it is different because the trust is not there, for good reason.

‘Many people who call themselves doctors aren’t doctors, they are charlatans. And some of the drugs are counterfeit. Government has often lied to people, claiming things are in their best interest.

‘In our countries we also get helped a lot. You have to make a big fuss not to get your children immunised. In India the reverse is true.’

The standard solution to immunisation is to bombard with information, she adds. ‘But sometimes to get people to take de-worming medicine the easiest option is to give them a tiny incentive, such as a kilo of lentils.

‘It had a much bigger take-up when we tried that.’

Then there is the strange case of the man in a village in Morocco who could not afford to feed his family yet bought a television.

‘The poor get bored the same as the rest of us. Their happiness might be as important to them as their health.

‘That man had bought a television by saving for it for many months; it wasn’t an impulse purchase. We have to take that seriously and ask why.’

It must be galling for her to listen to the views of non-experts all of the time; everyone has an opinion on global poverty and the most common one is that aid is a waste of time unless you change the rogue governments that administer it.

A high percentage of it ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

‘This waste-of-time argument is a standard view that you hear among non-experts and experts alike,’ she says.

‘But not all failed policies are the result of corrupt governments, but because not enough thinking went into the problem. You can start thinking about politics in the same ways you think about immunisation and education.

‘Can we fix it? Can we make it a little better?’

One of the main problems related to global poverty is population growth. Is the solution to give women more control over their fertility by educating them?

‘The new UN forecasts are for a world population of 10 billion, but the truth is we have no idea, and that is scary.

‘India and Africa are growing the fastest, so the question becomes: why do poor people have more children? Is it that they would like fewer but are not able to control their fertility?

‘Not always, because we found that often just giving people contraceptives doesn’t lead to a big drop in fertility, so we had to think again.

‘We met a guy in Indonesia who had nine kids and complained it had made him the poorest man in the neighbourhood. So I asked him, “Why do you have so many, then?” And he said, “So at least some of them will be around to help me out in old age.”

His wife was silent during the discussion, I should add. It was his choice, not hers. His choice was informed by worry about what would happen in old age, whereas in the West we don’t have that worry because of the welfare system.’

What does she make of the Tory decision not to cut foreign aid despite its round of severe government spending cuts?

‘I followed that. I think it is to the credit of the rich countries and their citizens that they know it wouldn’t make a huge difference to their lives to give less.’

As Ian Parker revealed last year in a fascinating profile of Duflo for the New Yorker, she had two dinners with Bill Gates (among others, including the heads of Amazon and Facebook) a conference last year , encounters she describes as ‘efficient’.

She says she doesn’t like to talk to people she doesn’t know. But, according to Parker, she is comfortable when discussing her work, and her scientific approach clearly resonates with the philanthropists of the internet age.

Gates told her, ‘We need to fund you.’

Is he a good listener? ‘He is a voracious reader and when he talks to you he is able to connect it with things he has read or seen. He is very smart and is trying to incorporate what you are saying into his own thinking. So he is very engaged.’

She’s a fan, then, I take it? ‘The billionaire group is…’ Long pause… ‘It’s a great privilege when you feel as if you could have a big influence on someone like Bill Gates.

‘There are a lot of positive things in what he is doing. His foundation is very evidence-driven and pragmatic. His message, and our message, is that what matters is not how much you spend but how you spend it.

‘If you spend your money well it will go a long way. The emphasis should be on finding out what works.’

What does she do when not thinking about economics?

‘Rock-climbing. I climb in a gym and outside, in the Alps and in Africa, Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro.’

Her orderly mind reveals itself as she describes the nature of her pleasure in rock-climbing.

‘You have to be deliberate and patient, and confident you can make it. Otherwise it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you think a climb is too hard it will become too hard.’

Rock-climbing. Tackling global poverty. She seems to approach both with the same systematic optimism.

‘You need to be entirely focused on what you are doing at that instant. Completely absorbed. So I can’t be thinking about economics.’

Does she read economics books on the beach? ‘I don’t go to the beach. There is no value in going to the beach. If I did go I would probably read economics books.’

She describes herself as ‘understated’, and ‘not very funny’. There have been boyfriends in the past but at the moment she lives alone in her flat in Beacon Hill, Boston.

What does she do for fun? Does she have a favourite sitcom? ‘I’ve never had a TV in my whole life. Television passed by me. I like the cinema and cooking for friends. Indian cooking. A bit of French. I follow books; I don’t invent.’

Did her family cook? ‘Not at all. There was food on the table but my brother and I became interested in cooking perhaps as a reaction to eating pasta all the time as children.’

Her brother is a professor of philosophy in France, her father a professor of mathematics, her mother a doctor. I’m guessing the conversation at mealtimes was pretty cerebral?

‘We were quite engaged as a family. So, yes, there were a lot of interesting debates at mealtimes.’

Not surprisingly, Duflo tends to listen to classical music, but she does have a favourite band and you are never going to guess what it is: Madness.

You can’t quite picture her singing along to Baggy Trousers, but then again she is not an easy person to pigeonhole.

A final question, then. Is it fair to say that not many of the world’s leading economists are women? ‘Five years ago it was, maybe. But now there are many more in the pipeline.

‘In a way it has been an advantage for me to be a woman because there is always some academic committee that needs you to fill a quota!’

And with that belated evidence of a sense of humour, we say our au revoirs.


Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello is a doting father, friend to presidents and writer of ‘proper’ love songs – but he’s still got the same old fire…

On a roof terrace overlooking Manhattan, an awning flaps lazily in the breeze. The man sitting underneath it is wearing sunglasses, as well he might given that a) the afternoon sun is unforgiving, even in the shade, and b) he is a rock star. Well, rock star up to a point. At 54, Elvis Costello is still leaping from genre to genre like a young pond frog spoilt for choice with waterlilies.

Having produced hit after New Wave hit in the late Seventies with his band The Attractions, he turned a little bit country in the early Eighties. After that came, in no particular order, recordings of jazz, swing and opera, as well as his innovative work with the Brodsky Quartet, a collaboration that is still going strong after 17 years.

Now he is back with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album of bluegrass and traditional American country music, recorded in Nashville. It’s a beguiling collection. Appeals to the heart and the head. And lyrically it reminds you why Costello has been described as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan – reminds you, indeed, why Dylan wanted to tour with him and why songwriters as great as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney have queued up to collaborate with him.

But this said, he is still a bona fide rock star and today he is dressed like one, in his black suit, black shirt and black tie – and his purple fedora and matching socks. The sunglasses could not be more rock star, in fact, big as they are with silver frames that contrast with his gingery sideburns and ’tache.

In conversation he is expansive and articulate, but easily sidetracked. And it is disconcerting talking to a man with whom you cannot make eye contact. ‘These?’ he says touching them. ‘I’m blind without them. They have prescription lenses in. Anyway, trust me, you don’t want to see what’s underneath them. I’ve only had three hours’ sleep.’

He and his wife, the multimillion-record-selling jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, live mostly in Vancouver with their twin boys who are two-and-a-half years old. Is the lack of sleep because of them? ‘No, I’m just an early riser and yesterday I flew in from the West Coast so I’m still on West Coast time.’ His son from an earlier marriage – he’s been married three times – is 34. How is he finding being a father again at his age? ‘Wonderful. Being a father at any age is wonderful.’

Who do the twins take after? ‘Thankfully their mother. Light hair and light eyes. I see temperamental things that might be like me. They travel a lot for young children. They’ve just crossed the Canadian prairies on a tour bus with us and they will be here in New York in a few hours, and then my wife is going to Europe to do some television shows, so they will stay here with me while she does that. I have help of course, but it’s great. We can sit and watch football or read The Hungry Caterpillar.’

Krall was playing shows up until the seventh month of her pregnancy. She was also doing interviews; I know because I was one of the masochists who requested one. I bow to no man in my admiration for her music, but, boy, is she a scary person to interview. Break the ice with her and you find cold water.

Anyway, the point is, the twins have been listening to music since before they were born, and I ask Costello if he sings to them now. ‘No, and I don’t think they are all that keen on my songs. It’s Randy Newman they love because he wrote Toy Story. They know the score so they can say what action is happening when. Randy must have a great trick there to imprint that music in children that young.’

The twins, he tells me, by the way, think he looks like Mr Potato Head, or at least that the drawing of him on the sleeve of his new album does. For his own part, he describes himself as a combination of Cheeta, the elderly chimp from the Tarzan movies, and Liza Minnelli. ‘The dynamism of Liza,’ he adds, ‘with the hairiness and long arms of Cheeta.’

Oh, and another aside while we are at it; he was born Declan Patrick MacManus in London in 1954, the year Elvis cut his first record, and he has had his stage name since 1977, the year Elvis Presley died (the Costello part was taken from his great grandmother).

But back to his music. Does his 34-year-old son like it? He smiles a rare, gap-toothed smile. ‘You’d have to ask him. I think so yeah, but I can’t speak for him. I can speak for my wife because we are both musicians, so of course we influence each other in our musical choices, but as for him, I can’t really say. Up to a certain age you can say our life together is beautiful but then the child becomes a separate person with his own identity. I love them all and am proud of them all. And I often don’t feel deserving of the love I get back from them.’

His relationship with his own parents seems to have been equally healthy, even after their divorce in 1972. It was a musical family. His mother sold records, his father was a successful big-band singer and his grandfather a trumpeter, working the cruise ships. Does he ever look in the mirror now and ‘see’ his father looking back? ‘I see both my parents. My dad in some respect but also my mother. I look like both of them. I think we made some of the same choices. They worked hard to make sure I had a decent standard of living. And I’ve worked hard, every single day since I left school. I think I have a protestant work ethic.

‘Never sleep in the day. My mother doesn’t enjoy great health and I sometimes hear my dad’s voice in my own saying to her, “You should take a nap during the day”, but she won’t. I’m a bit like that. I haven’t taken a holiday in 16 years.’

In his case the not wanting to sleep during the day is to do with his insomnia. That said, he now points to a couple of sun loungers on the other side of the roof terrace and suggests that we could always go and have a lie down on them and carry on the interview there ‘side by side, like Eric and Ernie’. Elvis Costello, it seems, is in a playful mood. This isn’t always the case. He has a reputation as a serious man – serious about music, serious about politics, serious about the subject of Elvis Costello.

This is reflected in his physical paradox – he manages to convey an air of slovenly nonchalance and tightly coiled energy. And it occurs to me that his reputation for reticence and being difficult may be something to do with his manner and voice. He is a mumbler. As it competes with the breeze, the traffic and the sirens below, his voice becomes so whispery, I worry it won’t pick up on my tape. He shields the recorder with his hat. ‘See? The hat has two purposes, shields my head and shields your mic.’

His whispery speaking voice is in contrast to his singing voice, which has extraordinary range and power. We had originally been scheduled to do this interview when he was over on a visit to London, but then he decided he would have to rest his voice that afternoon and when I heard the concert at the Barbican that evening, I could see why.

‘You do have to be a bit careful with your voice,’ he says now. ‘It is an instrument. I think when you know the songs, your voice works around them, finds the slots with more ease, but you need to know how to pace yourself because we were doing 10 new arrangements in that show. I try to find the character for each song and I wasn’t sure how much vocal stamina it would take to follow one from the other. It seemed to hold out OK.’

The Barbican audience that night was warm, with many standing ovations; he was in a friendly mood, too, with much good humoured banter. Was this, I ask, a case of him making amends for the comment he made in 2005 that, in effect, he had fallen out of love with England? ‘I don’t care if I ever play in England again,’ he said at the time.‘I don’t get along with it. We lost touch. I don’t dig it. They don’t dig me.’ He shakes his head.

‘That was a mischievous sub-editor taking a quote out of context. I was opening for Bob Dylan and was just coming off stage and I was saying that, compared to America, I feel like I don’t connect any more in Britain. My mother rang up and said: “Did you say you hate England?” You can scour that interview and you won’t find that quote. Then the broadsheets pitched in with arts page editorials about what it all meant. I mean, if I’d known that was all I had to do to get publicity I would have said goodbye to England earlier.’

It’s not the first time he’s been taken out of context. At the end of the Seventies, details of a drunken argument in a Holiday Inn in Ohio were leaked. Having apparently described the soul legend James Brown as ‘a jiveass nigger’, and Ray Charles as ‘a blind, ignorant nigger,’ he woke up with a hangover and called a press conference in New York to apologise.

‘I said some stupid things and can’t blame anyone but myself,’ he says now. ‘I hope I have made amends now and anyone who has followed my career will know I am not racist and cannot doubt my respect and admiration for black singers. But the English thing I didn’t even say. I don’t know whether any one noticed, but I haven’t been in England for 20 years. I moved to Ireland 20 years ago and now I am mainly in Vancouver. But ultimately…’ A shrug. ‘I didn’t get into this business to be loved.’

But loved he is. Besides T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello has worked with, among others, Bacharach, Brian Eno, McCartney. It’s often said he’s the Kevin Bacon of the music world, connected to everyone and everyone connected through him. ‘I don’t feel I went looking for them, though. Most of the major collaborations came to me. I didn’t go knocking on Paul McCartney’s door.’

Sounds like a cue for a Wings song. ‘Exactly. It’s funny but with Wings, Paul didn’t refer to the musical language of the Beatles at all, he wouldn’t even make passing reference to their harmonic cadences, what he did instead was create another highly original sound. But by the time our collaboration occurred I thought his reluctance to refer to the Beatles was perverse, because everyone else was ripping the Beatles off.’

And as McCartney once said, ‘I think I can do Paul McCartney better than Noel Gallagher can do Paul McCartney’. He nods. ‘Well Noel is deluded about a lot of things, most obviously that he is a songwriter at all. That he even brackets himself in the same sentence as Paul is laughable. You have to keep these boys in line! None of us are Irving Berlin or Burt Bacharach, you know. I sat at the side of the stage recently watching Burt sing Alfie and it was magical.’

He had been a member of the Beatles fan club as a child, so working with McCartney must have been daunting enough, but to work with Bacharach must have been… well, what? ‘We worked section-by-section, phrase-by-phrase, both composing, answering one another, it was a fairly extraordinary thing for him to allow me to do – after all, he doesn’t exactly need to collaborate at this stage in his career.

‘It’s probably what appealed to him. Having a dialogue in music. With him it was a case of finding the lyrics that would confer the meaning of the music that was already in the song. It was so vivid to me.’

Yet this is not the collaboration of which he is most proud – that would be his work with the country singer George Jones. ‘In 1981 I had not a writer’s block exactly but an impasse because I had done five albums and I felt I was no longer saying what I was feeling, so I used other people’s songs and that became the country album Almost Blue.’

To his fans, was that like Dylan going electric? ‘I don’t think it was that big a deal. We joked about it and put on the album – “Warning! This album contains country and western music and may offend narrow-minded listeners.” I didn’t have people heckling but even if they had at least that would have shown they cared.’

He sips his coffee. In his youth he was a legendary drinker. It is just coffee these days. No hard liquor. Did it get in the way? ‘Not so much that really, I just drank my share and it was enough.’

But is it true he split from the Attractions because of arguments fuelled by drugs and alcohol? ‘We just had our time, I think. We thought, “let’s go and do some other things independently.” In the end we were copying ourselves. Self parody. Other people were doing it just as well as us.’

There is something endearingly Eeyorish about Elvis Costello. At one point I find myself in the bizarre position of defending one of his songs, to him – Every Day I Write the Book. ‘It was OK,’ he says begrudgingly. OK! I say. It was the soundtrack to the summer of 1983! ‘I like singing it now, but I don’t much care for the record.’

So the layers of personal meaning and association that the listener brings to it count for nothing? ‘That is to confuse quality with nostalgia. Certain songs have indisputable quality such as I’m Gonna Make You Love Me by the Temptations. Objectively that is a great record with five great vocal performances on it. But the records that were the hits were not always the best songs, they were just the ones the labels put out which caught the mood of the time.’

He even manages to downplay Barack Obama’s request that he be the bandleader at his inauguration. ‘I’ve not met him. My wife has and says he’s very charming. He sent his regards to me, which was nice of him. You’d think he would have too much on his plate to bother with a pop singer.’

The Clintons were fans, too, naming their daughter after the Elvis Costello song (I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea. ‘I think Bill is more a fan of my wife,’ he says. Even so, last year, Costello hosted Spectacle, a chat show series on Channel 4, and proved an able interviewer, his skills honed from standing in for David Letterman.

Guests ranged from Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Hancock, Elton John and Tony Bennett… to Bill Clinton. ‘That Bill took an hour out of his time when his wife was running for president to come on was good of him. That was only the second interview I did. It was bad enough trying to remember the technical stuff, like which camera to look at, without having to think of coherent questions.’

Another week featured what was probably the last television performance by the Police before they disbanded, again. ‘With them it was a case of let’s have some banter with these three guys who after tomorrow night are probably not going to see each other again for a very long time. I had been on the road with them and knew there had been this begrudging tolerance of each other.’

Costello was known as an acerbic songwriter in his early years, as well as a thorny personality. I ask what he makes of the perception that he was an angry young man who mellowed. ‘I don’t think there is any mileage in that. I just think it is a safe thing to say. A safe guess. Mellow about what?’ One thinks of the energy of his early music. Oliver’s Army. Pump it Up.

‘You saw that concert at Barbican, there was a lot of energy in that. A 23 year-old couldn’t have done that.’

What about the anger of the lyrics of Tramp the Dirt Down, in which he looked forward to the death of Baroness Thatcher. ‘Well that was much later. To people who say I have lost the fire of some of my early commentary, I say there are many ways to express things. Shipbuilding is not a ranting song, it is melancholy.

‘The River in Reverse, the song I wrote about [Hurricane] Katrina, wasn’t a pious song, that was an angry song about the lack of care for the victims.’

Besides, often his songs were about love and betrayal. Of The Crooked Line, one of the songs on his new album, he says that it is the first time he has written about fidelity in an unironic way. ‘I think when I was younger I was not very good at writing love songs that didn’t have a twist. You know, Smokey Robinson writes the heartfelt songs, whereas it was my job to write the songs about weakness and failure in love.’

He says it took a long time to admit that it was love with Krall, not just musical empathy. He believed they could be friends and collaborators. ‘Then something happens that you can’t control and I’ve never felt better in my life.’

So The Crooked Line is about finding love and happiness after two unsuccessful marriages? ‘Actually, it was written for someone else to sing. Imagining a much longer relationship to reach a peaceful place. If I was going to write something that personal it would be in the song, I wouldn’t need to explain it. Maybe none of my songs are directly from my own life.’ Note the ‘maybe’. Costello is always careful in his use of words.


Dylan Moran

When Dylan Moran isn’t making people laugh, he is being ‘arsey’ – he’d like that on his tombstone. Anger is funny, he tells Nigel Farndale

Of stand-up comedians, there are two types. There are those who will gallop off with any subject an interviewer throws at them, finding an excuse to deliver a pithy line or monologue.

And there is Dylan Moran. I think he thinks it would compromise his integrity to be overtly funny away from the microphone. When we meet in a Soho bar, he prefers to pontificate, all serious purpose and black unblinking eyes. Friendly enough, but also a little defensive.

His appearance is promising, though; not unlike that of his stage persona. He’s a scruffily dressed, unshaven 35-year-old, with dishevelled black hair.

‘It’s its own bioculture,’ he says, ‘I just leave it alone.’ And he has a glass of red wine in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other, as he does on stage – ‘I know I’m going to quit someday; if I thought I wasn’t, I’d quit now.’

But in person he is not given to desultory, elegiac and mordant observation spooled out in a languid, slightly slurring Irish lilt. He is polite enough to avoid the label prickly, but none the less he is oddly, pointlessly argumentative. ‘Arsey’ is how he describes himself. He thinks he might put that on his gravestone.

Perhaps he just feels that, as a veteran of the comedy circuit, he has nothing to prove. It is, after all, 10 years since he won the prestigious Perrier Award for Comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe.

More recently, he won a Bafta for Black Books, the drily witty Channel 4 sitcom he co-wrote and starred in, alongside Bill Bailey (with studied indifference Moran didn’t show up to collect his award; he then killed off the show, quitting while he was ahead).

He plays Bernard, a London bookshop-owner who loves his books but hates his customers. When he can’t stand them any longer, he will shout: ‘Right, the shop is closed. Get out all you time-wasting bastards. Go on. Back in the street.’

He got the idea from a Dublin bookseller who ‘looked like he had swallowed a cup of sour milk’. In retrospect he thinks the conceit worked because ‘anger is funny. You know you always feel a bit giggly if someone’s cross.’

He has appeared in a number of films over the years, most memorably in Shaun of the Dead, but stand-up is his true calling. And he’s good at it, with an unusual conversational style that can be profound at times, surreal and lyrical at others.

He’s popular, too, playing grown-up venues such as the Hammersmith Apollo, as he will be doing next month. Given his air of insecurity and distraction – I’ve heard that he’s afraid of flying – isn’t performing alone on stage masochistic?

Moran runs a hand through his floppy hair. ‘It makes some people feel vulnerable, I suppose. In fact, I think public speaking comes before being harpooned to death in most people’s list of fears. But it doesn’t bother me. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You dry up and it’s a total disaster, and there are 2,000 people watching you?’

An only child, Moran grew up in Navan, a zinc-mining community, 30 miles west of Dublin. His father was a carpenter there. He was, he says, overweight as a child because he lived on a diet of Angel Delight. ‘We didn’t have anything in the house that wasn’t neon.’

His abiding memory of school was of ‘fat tears of boredom’ rolling down his cheeks. He went on to become selfish and angry as a teenager, he adds. ‘Have I had therapy? I went to a yoga class once.’

He left school at 16, moved to Dublin and saw a young Ardal O’Hanlon performing stand-up there. Although Moran had only ‘phlegm and pretension’ to offer, he knew this was the career for him.

‘Dublin wasn’t as cosmopolitan then as it is now. Dublin then was a monoculture. You had grumbling Dubliners staggering around in horizontal brown rain. Now, the person you buy your cheese sandwich from is called Zeus or Igor.

‘The world arrived on Dublin’s doorstep overnight. You get these racist values that have been allowed to lie dormant for years and have now got a nine-inch crust on them.’

I ask what values were instilled in him growing up in Ireland. ‘Well, it was a Catholic country, so the smorgasbord of values being offered to you was: would you like Jesus over here or over here? Would you like Jesus with cheese or Jesus with onions? It was completely theocratic, the education.

‘Religion is the yeast of death cakes. It is the most awful agent on a vulnerable mind. It’s the refuge of alienated and lonely people. It’s what people had before television. It yokes people together into an imaginary world. It is just people talking to their imaginary friends, at length. I wouldn’t mind, but some of the people are world leaders.’

He lives in Edinburgh now with his wife, Elaine – it’s her home town – and their two children. He has just been performing at the festival there. ‘Home gigs can be hard because it’s an odd collision. More than anything, I feel self-conscious when my family are in the audience. I’m doing this job which is not quite acting – part of it is me, part performance. You’re presenting a cartoon of yourself to people who know you as a line-drawing.’

Does he find himself trying out new material at home on his wife? ‘It’s the other way round. She always makes me laugh. The person you love is usually the person who makes you laugh. And Elaine can always tell when I nick one of her ideas.’

He tries to avoid writing ideas down, though. ‘Paper acts as an eraser on the mind, as soon as you look at what you’ve written,’ he says.

‘You can delude yourself that you can capture things in the notebooks and jotters you leave lying around in case you get that 2 am feeling of: “That’s it! That’s it!” Then you wake up and what you’ve jotted is meaningless bollocks: “shed, rabbit, bike.” But, at the time, you laughed yourself back to sleep.’

He finds it easy being ‘off’, he says. ‘I’m not always on – I was never like that. It’s blurring for me, because what makes me laugh in my kitchen is what will make me laugh on stage.

‘You look for universals. The differences between men and women, for instance. All of the important subjects are familiar. I have a bone to pick with lazy reviewers on this. The eternal subjects are the eternal subjects, whether it’s War and Peace or a folk club. It’s hard work to try to understand it. Sometimes it’s easier to try to understand yourself.’

I wonder how much Dylan Moran does understand himself. He has been known to complain when journalists portray him as spiky and morose, but he thinks the fault lies in their perception not in his own character. Yet, when I meet him he doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in his own skin. ‘I’m bored listening to me, sometimes,’ he says.

His publicist puts this down to his reserve with strangers, and insists that he is very laid back and charming in private, and perhaps this is so. But he does take himself seriously, not in a pompous way, but almost for fear of being dismissed as merely funny.

A shame that, because when Dylan Moran is being funny, he is very funny indeed.


Diana Rigg

Dame Diana Rigg may be 70 this month but she still drives a Mercedes sports car, smokes 20 a day and swears by a bottle of Merlot before bedtime. The spirit of Emma Peel lives on, finds Nigel Farndale.

There is a low-boughed tree in the Chelsea Physic Garden that bears strange blossom: a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a straight spine and a thick bob of dyed blonde hair. It is Dame Diana Rigg, and she is standing under the tree, with her head in the branches, because our photographer has asked her to. When she emerges picking petals from her hair, she looks to the overcast sky and says, ‘This flat light is very good for a woman of my age.’

Since she mentions it, she turns 70 this month. And although she looks her age in a way that, say, Julie Christie, her fellow 1960s sex symbol, does not, her strong features – retroussé nose and high cheekbones, down-turned eyes and mouth – are still softly handsome. Dressed in pin-stripe trousers and a red jacket, and with only a suggestion of make-up, she seems comfortable with herself. Too dignified to be vain. Not the cosmetic surgery type. (Actually, that’s not quite true. She had the wrinkles around her eyes removed when she was 44, but that was it.)

She lights a cigarette, getting one in before lunch. The last time we met, a decade ago, when she was in Ted Hughes’s adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre, people were still allowed to smoke in restaurants, and boy did she make the most of that. She still smokes 20 a day, but is relaxed about the smoking ban in public places. We debate whether to eat here at the Physic Garden – she is a member – or round the corner at Foxtrot Oscar. She opts for the latter because they mix a good bloody Mary there.

As we walk, we talk about Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. She has just finished a run of it at Chichester – ‘Got a right old buffeting from the critics, but I loved it and we played to 74 per cent capacity, so up yours critics’ – and is now about to head off for the summer to her place in France, south-east of Bordeaux. There she will cook for friends, read, listen to music and swim naked in her pool. At night she listens to the owls. She feels freer there than in her Kensington flat, more at ease. Because she always despised herself for not speaking fluent French, she took herself off to the Lycée to learn it. ‘I’m still chary of speaking French outside France, though.’

At the restaurant she orders her bloody Mary and tells me that the mayor of the French village asked if he could hunt wild boar in the land that goes with her house. ‘So they all came in their vans with their dogs and blew their horns and killed two adult wild boar, mother and father. Very medieval. Carried them out of the wood on a stick, but one of the young boars escaped and took refuge under my neighbour’s bed. The saying in the village was that she had the pig under her bed, whereas normally he is on top of it.’ She laughs at the joke. She is in a good mood, an end-of-term frivolity. Phew. She can be glacial when she wants to be, as a few interviewers have discovered over the years.

When the drink arrives, she asks for another slice of lemon and says, ‘I don’t normally drink at lunchtime. I’m not saying that defensively, I just don’t. And in the evening I never drink before six, an old habit acquired from my father.’ She makes up for it after that, though, believing in ‘red before bed’. A £3.99 bottle of Chilean merlot gives you the best night’s sleep in the world, she reckons. It’s like being hit over the head. She wakes up 10 hours later, feeling like a spring lamb.

Though she describes herself as ‘hopelessly un-neurotic’ and thinks she might be a better actress if she were more neurotic, she does have a sudden and explosive temper, and the angrier she gets the more articulate she becomes. She is intolerant of queue-jumpers, litter-droppers and bad-mannered people generally. When driving, she will roll down her window and yell, ‘Thank you!’ to people she has let into a line of traffic. I get a taste of this sharpness now, or rather the waitress does, when she appears and says, ‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’d like to talk you through the specials on the menu.’

‘I think we can read,’ Rigg says. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘But they change each day,’ the waitress says, staggering back slightly. When the waitress goes, Rigg explains her shortness with people. With her, things have to be said. She’s no good at bottling up her feelings. But she is good at saying sorry and she never sulks.

I tell her I found clips of her on YouTube from her various appearances on Parkinson – on one of which she said that her greatest pleasure in life came from biting her baby’s bottom – to scenes from The Avengers, the television series as synonymous with the 1960s as are the Mini and the Beatles. I had forgotten how psychedelic those shows were, how surreal the humour – she would end a fight scene by picking up her knitting.

‘Oh yes, my daughter sends me YouTube clips. Not of me. Funny stuff. It all sounds like rubbish the stuff they have of me. It’s a horrible thought that they are on there. I’m also a mouse pad and a screen-saver. Am I supposed to be flattered? All these old images of me floating across the screen, the terrible chasm of what you were and what you are. I know who I am, but these people who see me as I was then don’t. There is always one thing that turns you into an icon, an iconic image, in my case a catsuit. But the icon 40 years later doesn’t really want to know because it’s not relevant to me. Some of those early photographs of me might as well be sepia. It’s always thought that I disclaim television and am too theatre, but the truth is The Avengers bores me now. I was grateful because it catapulted me into stage stardom. It was good. I’m not ashamed of it. But I only did it for two years.’

The leather catsuit was ‘a total nightmare’; it took 45 minutes to get it unzipped. Like struggling in and out of a wetsuit. Once she got into the jersey catsuits, they were easy to wear but she had to watch for baggy knees. Nothing worse.

At Rada she had trained as a classical actress and afterwards she had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. It sounds like she planned to use television as a way of boosting her stage career. ‘Not at all. I left the RSC not knowing what I was going to do and ended up getting a telly job with Harry Corbett, only because the director’s wife had been cast opposite him and she had to drop out. After that, my agent put me up for The Avengers and I didn’t have telly, so I didn’t know what it was. When it came out, I was suddenly famous. It was startling. From being anonymous, I was mobbed.’

She certainly was. Once she had to hide in the lavatory at the Motor Show. And in Germany police resorted to batons to hold back the fans. Slavering fan mail was another problem. She would get her mother, Beryl, to field the letters. The replies were usually along the lines of: ‘Those aren’t very nice thoughts. And besides, my daughter is too old for you. I suggest you take a run around the block.’ People still send her Avengers photos to sign, but she refuses. ‘I feel such a phony. That is not me. That is another person.

‘Fame was different then, she adds. ‘Nowadays people court fame, Big Brother-type fame; in those days we didn’t know how to court fame. There weren’t the channels to court fame, the publicists. I just hope the people getting their 15 minutes now are putting their money in the building society.’

When I ask if fame is hollow, she shakes her head. ‘I’m not the best person to ask because, whatever form it has taken for me, it has always been attached to my career. I’ve always tried to avoid any vestige of it touching my private life. It has always been separate. I step into a character in my public life. People who don’t make that distinction are dooooomed.’ (This is a trait of hers: she stretches her vowels elastically but not camply; her voice is far too deep and smoky and unhurried for that.) ‘There is still that small centre of me that has never been touched by fame, never photographed, written about or discussed. So when I sit next to a stranger at a dinner party and they feel they know something about me, I know they don’t.’

In retrospect, she wishes she had allowed herself to enjoy fame more than she did. ‘I should have handled it better. Had more fun. Not naughty fun. But just, you know. I sometimes think, when I look back on those days: why didn’t I have more confidence? Why didn’t I know I was pretty good-looking? It is probably to do with my Yorkshire upbringing. Always thinking that people might be saying, “Who does she think she is?”‘

She was born in Doncaster in 1938, but her parents were based in India and she was taken back there after her birth. Her father, Louis Rigg, was a railway engineer who worked for the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singh. When Rigg was shipped back to gloomy Yorkshire and boarding school in 1945, she felt like a fish out of water. Still, Yorkshire, she believes, played a much greater part in shaping her character than India did. It was a tradition in her household, for example, that you always had to have a slice of bread and butter without jam before you could have one with. Very Yorkshire, that.

Does she keep a diary? ‘I don’t and I wish I did because the past is pretty unknown to me. I have so lived for the present that I can’t remember the details. Smells and sounds can transport me and then I remember. I don’t keep memorabilia or photograph albums.’

Her daughter, Rachael Stirling, is also an actress, one with a successful career (she starred in Tipping the Velvet). She looks and sounds like her mother. Was it inevitable that she would follow her into acting? ‘Her dad and I did say, “Here we go. Fairly inevitable.” But we said she must go to uni first, so she read history of art at Edinburgh.’

Is there any rivalry between mother and daughter? ‘No, I don’t think so. I feel more that the baton has been handed on. She doesn’t use my surname, but she does look very like me.’

Rigg gave up working to raise her daughter; would she recommend that Rachael do the same if she has children? ‘The work-life balance, you mean? I wouldn’t advise her on anything, she’ll do it her way. I might take over the baby if she is away. The world has changed mightily; in my mother’s day you were made to feel guilty if you went out. Now everyone is left to work it out for themselves. Actually, acting was quite compatible with motherhood. I could take her to school when doing theatre. The evening was a problem, obviously. But I could always put her to bed when I was doing a film or TV. I don’t think my profession made any difference with her, though. My divorce? I’m not sure.’

Her first marriage was in 1973 to Menahem Gueffen, an Israeli painter; her first divorce was three years later. She married again in 1982 to a Scottish landowner, Archie Stirling, and had Rachael at the age of 39. The marriage broke up in 1990, after Stirling had an affair with the actress Joely Richardson. Rigg has stayed on good terms with her former husband. And when we met last time she said, ‘I’m slightly aghast that you see before you a twice-divorced woman. I’m shocked. It’s not how I saw myself, how I imagined things would work out, not what I believe in.’ Now she seems more at ease with the idea. When she was young, she says, women were considered incomplete without a husband, and it has taken her many years to come to the tranquil conclusion that life can be complete without a man after all.

She seems to know herself well, if that doesn’t sound like too crass a comment. She understands what makes her tick and is unsentimental and matter-of-fact about herself. She thinks she is probably quite ‘anal’ – actually, that is what her daughter thinks and she goes along with it. Her greatest fear is being ‘a dithering, dribbling old bag, having to rely on help for everything’. Her greatest disappointment is her film career – ‘or lack of – but it’s too late now.’ The single thing that would improve the quality of her life would be to no longer have creaking joints: in the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, in 1987, there was an 11-minute tap routine in high heels that permanently damaged her knees.

Today, Rigg seems to be regarded by audience and critics alike as the most daring, intelligent and inspired tragedienne on the London (and New York) stage. But it wasn’t until she was in her fifties that she hit her stride, playing three award-winning leads in succession: Medea (1992-94); Mother Courage (1995) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1996). Rigg’s performance as Medea was a career peak. She won a London Evening Standard Theatre Award and Tony Award for Best Actress. In it she played a vengeful wife who kills her estranged husband’s children. Coincidental though the timing was, she had just separated from her husband.

In Phèdre, she played the queen who falls in love with her stepson, only to find that her husband still lives. Jealousy induces her to send him to his death, but her conscience forces her to admit her guilt before dying herself. ‘With Phèdre it was typical Ted [Hughes] – muscular, strong writing – there is nothing Ancient Greek wafty about it. It grabs you like a pair of eagle’s claws. It was a huge privilege working with him. He died during the run of the play. The night he died, we were playing it. Such poignancy – because he knew he was dying and he said to the cast, “I go to bed happy because Phèdre is on stage.” He had been so attacked by the feminists who blamed him for Sylvia’s suicide. They felt he had driven her to it by his infidelity. He was like an oak and I can quite see why women threw themselves at him. His poetic soul and that wonderful voice that came from his boots.’

Her own soul is pretty poetic. She is, she says, easily moved by the thought of young men fighting and dying for their country. Whenever she visits the battlefields of the First World War she is reduced to tears. ‘They are so silent, hardly any birdsong, big open fields, it is as if nature is paying reverence.’ At the moment, the news images of Union flag-draped coffins coming out of RAF transporter planes fills her with terrible despair and anger. She joined the march against the war in Iraq and says that she now feels betrayed by Blair. ‘Did he seduce me? Yes. He, generally speaking, courted my profession. But I now disavow.’

Her father was a Conservative. So is her brother, a retired RAF Harrier test pilot. She is a crossbencher. ‘I wish I could feel sorry for Gordon Brown, but I can’t. He was the understudy who got the role but didn’t understand it. Didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t learn his lines or know his moves. I heard an alternative comedian say that even when Gordon smiles he looks like he’s sh–ting a sea anemone, and that’s about right. The breathing? It’s a tic. A habit. He inhales and his bottom lip goes with it. He could easily see an acting coach and get rid of it, but I imagine he is too busy with other things.’

She is a big Barack Obama fan and thinks John McCain is too old for the job. ‘I know I should be saying the opposite because I’m the same age as him, but I do think his age will make a difference. At 70, you aren’t as physically robust as you were. I don’t think your mental capacities are as good as they were. The President should be a younger man with older advisers.’ I remind her that the last time we met she had been telling me that she intended to get a pensioner’s bus pass. Did she? Actually, she says with a quick smile, she drives.

I have to say I do not recognise the woman who, in 2002, was attacked by the Daily Mail as ’embittered’. She had gone into retirement, the paper claimed, and was living ‘the life of a recluse’ in France. The article was accompanied by a grim photograph of her clutching a baguette. The caption read: ‘Shopping for one.’ She had been followed to her remote village and secretly photographed. She sued the newspaper for libel and won £38,000 damages, which she donated to charity.

That said, she does quite enjoy silence and her own company. She is still a keen fly-fisher, a solitary sport. ‘I don’t have a river any more. I did have when I was married, on my husband’s estate. Now I just fish whenever I am invited anywhere. I’m a fishing tart.’ She is still the chancellor of Sterling university, though she stands down this year. ‘I’m not an academic, but I would have loved to have been one. I love the dinners with professors. You learn all sorts of things. I can tell you all about the mites that attack salmon. I can even tell you what happens in the lochs with the mounds of fish excrement.’

The life of an actor has never been secure, she says, because actors never really know from one year to the next what they will be doing. ‘But the grave danger is to fall into the trap of thinking you cease to exist if you no longer have a job. Obviously, economics has a bearing on this. But you must fill your life with as many alternatives as possible to your job, because without that you are going to be an empty vessel.’ So what does she have lined up next? ‘Nothing next.’ She says with a laugh. ‘But I still exist.’

Afterwards, as I am waiting for a taxi in Chelsea, I hear a woman calling my name. It is Rigg in the driving seat of a new-looking, sky-blue Mercedes sports car. Can she give me a lift anywhere? So much for the bus pass, I think. Just then a taxi arrives and she gives an ironic salute goodbye. It is a very Emma Peel moment. I think she was even wearing sunglasses and may have had a cigarette in her hand. Either way, she looked like the coolest damned 70-year-old I’ve ever seen.


Donald Trump

… now Donald Trump wants to turn part of Scotland into a golf course. He’s already worth ‘about $10 billion’ but – in between barking orders to his secretary (and our interviewer) – he says he’s not motivated by money. Nigel Farndale almost believes him

The first surprise is that Donald Trump, a man who prides himself on his focus and discipline, does not have clear surfaces in his office high above Manhattan.

On the contrary, the place is cluttered with baseball bats, American football helmets, assorted trophies, silver spades propped against walls, and dozens of framed magazine covers stacked rather than hung. Evidence of a busy mind perhaps; or a short attention span.

‘This is Shaq O’Neal’s shoe,’ he says picking up what appears to be a shipping container from among the sports vests and baseballs laid out on a sofa. ‘Here, have a hold of it. It’s a monster, right? Size 22.

He took it off immediately after winning the NBA. And this is Tyson’s world heavyweight belt.’ He places a heavy, medallioned belt in my other hand.

‘The trouble is, I have nowhere to put these things. And all these.’ He gestures at the picture frames and then at the extravagant views from his windows, Central Park to the north, the Empire State Building to the south. ‘Don’t have enough wall space because of all these windows. When I have time I’ll get them hung up.’

It sounds improbable, this lack of space, given that we are standing on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the most valuable piece of property in Manhattan, and one of the many skyscrapers around the world which this 62-year-old real-estate tycoon owns. But the lack of time rings true. His day starts at 5.30am, and he takes between five and 10 minutes for lunch, at his desk.

Though he is friendly enough, when he comes to the end of a sentence he has a habit of saying, ‘Go ahead’, as in, next question. Boy, is it unnerving.

The second surprise, by the way, is that he has shaken hands. I thought he hated that, to the point of obsessive compulsiveness. ‘Well, you look like a nice clean guy,’ he says. ‘What am I going to catch from you? It is a terrible custom that we all have.

But I guess it’s better than the hug. I had this guy came in a couple of weeks ago, and he says, “Hi Donald,” and shakes my hand, then gives me a hug, then sits down and starts coughing, and I say, “What’s wrong?”

And he says, “I have the worst cold.” So I say, “Excuse me,” and go off and wash my hands.’ Pause. ‘Go ahead.’

What about social kissing? ‘The triple is the worst. In France. One, two, three. The triple is crazy.’

Is that what he has to do with his one-time girlfriend, Carla Bruni? Or is it the kiss on the hand, now that she is the wife of the President of France?

‘Carla? It’s not awkward with her. She’s a terrific woman who is going to do France proud. She is already a great first lady. Is that what they call it over there? Has she taken you guys in England by storm? So different.’ Pause. ‘Go ahead.’

Scotland, I say as we sit down – him behind a vast polished desk cluttered with phones, cuttings and magazines, most of them featuring him on the cover; me opposite on a chair that is slightly lower than his.

A few weeks ago he landed his plane, a private Boeing 727 with the name Trump written in giant gold letters on the side, on the tiny Isle of Lewis, dwarfing anything else flying into or out of that airport.

He then spent precisely 97 seconds looking (for the first time) at the house where his mother was born and raised, all the while being photographed by the world’s media.

Then, with all the subtlety of a bulldozer, proceeded to give evidence to a public inquiry into a controversial £1 billion development he is planning to build at Balmedie, 13 miles north of Aberdeen, arguing that he was going to build ‘the greatest golf course in the world’ there, and there was no point in doing it ‘in a half-assed way’.

Environmental groups have balked at the proposal to build two golf courses, a five-star hotel, 1,000 holiday homes and 500 private houses on a three-mile stretch of coastline. They have argued that it could cause irreversible damage to a protected area of sand dunes.You certainly like to make an entrance, I say.

‘Well, you know all that publicity surrounding my visit is good for Scotland. I got calls from all over the world after that, from people wanting to invest there. It was on all the front pages. So many people have written about it. I have cuttings sent. Kelly!’

This is another thing he does. Mid-thought he will bark out his secretary’s name.

‘Can you bring in that pile of cuttings?’ Kelly appears and hands them over. He flicks through them. The headline on one is ‘Donald Grump’. I ask what it is about.

‘To be honest I don’t have time to read them. I wouldn’t get anything else done if I did. These are just the ones about Scotland. There are 33 other locations we’re working on. We’re doing great jobs around the world. Dubai.

China. India. Russia. Look here. Your FT. Right on the front page. I think that’s good for Scotland. I think it’s a positive. I think we made our case well. We have right on our side. Assuming we get the necessary approvals, I think it will be a great thing for Scotland.

There are very few opponents. I think they were very ineffective in the commission. I think we made our case well. Great thing for Scotland.’

This is another thing. He repeats his message several times in the same block of thought, treating discourse as an exercise in attrition. (Take these repetitions as read from now on.) He also bigs himself up all the time.

In fact, I don’t think I have met anyone less self-conscious or, with the possible exception of Don King, the boxing promoter, more puffed-up with self-belief. The funny thing is though, it suits him. He does it with a strange, almost cartoonish charm.

Trump has said that one of the things that attracted him to the site was that he had ‘never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic seaside landscape’. Which is precisely what makes it ‘the perfect setting’ for a six-storey hotel with customised boulevard. Does he appreciate the irony of that comment?

‘You will hardly even see the course,’ he says. ‘There are hundreds of courses built on SSSIs [Sites of Special Scientific Interest] in the UK. Tremendous number. It’s going to be beautiful, otherwise it wouldn’t be suitable.’

When we spoke, the inquiry was due to publish its conclusion any day. Whatever the outcome, this has been an unusual experience for Trump. Has his celebrity been a hindrance in this case, does he suppose? ‘I think it’s been both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that people know the work I do.’

His name is on everything: his buildings, his planes, even, according to legend, his bed. Did the use of his name as part of the brand start out as egotism?

‘It probably started right here in this building. Every company in the country wanted this site. It was and remains the best site in New York.

In my twenties I wasn’t naming buildings after myself, and then I bought the building rights for this site over Tiffany and had a choice of naming this building Trump Tower or Tiffany Tower, and a friend of mine who was streetwise said, ”When you change your name to Tiffany, then call it Tiffany Tower.” So I called it Trump Tower and it was a tremendous success.’

I have been trying not to stare at his famous brush-forward, comb-over hairstyle, the one that was once compared to a sunken apricot soufflé and which has been described by the New York Times as ‘an elaborate structure best left to an architecture critic’. As we are talking about branding and image, the question seems to be begged. For the love of God, man, why?

‘People always comment on it, but it’s not that bad and it is mine. Look,’ he lifts it up. ‘I mean, I get killed on it. I had an article where someone said it was a hairpiece, but you can see it isn’t.’ Does he use gel?

‘No, I use spray actually. I’ll comb it wet then spray it so it doesn’t get blown away by the wind. I’ve taken a lot of heat on the hair but, hey, it seems to work. Some people say, “Why don’t you comb it back?” but I don’t think NBC would be happy. They don’t want to take any chances.

‘Hey, Kelly! Can you bring in the figures from Nielsen?’

He is referring to the ratings for his US television show, The Apprentice, which he launched, along with the catchphrase ‘You’re Fired’.

‘There,’ he says, handing over the figures. ‘Didn’t even write them myself! When my show became a success I had all these people trying to copy it. Martha Stewart. Richard Branson.

They all failed. I really like Richard even though he tried to copy my show and failed. His show bombed whereas mine was the number one rated. The Apprentice has just been renewed for two more years.’

What about Sir Alan Sugar? Hasn’t his British version of The Apprentice done as well as Trump’s?

‘He does a good job over there. I chose him with [the producer] Mark Burnett. We have tried this format in lots of countries with different entrepreneurs and Alan has done it best.’

I heard there was tension between them, especially after Sir Alan described Trump as being ‘full of himself’ and ‘loud and garish’.

‘You mean early on? Well, if there was tension it was because he said he was going to top the rating in the United States, relatively speaking, and I said that was hard because I had the number one show. You want a Coke? Two Diet Cokes please, Kelly!’

The Washington Post once said that, ‘everything in Trump world is fabulous, or in first place, or better looking, or richer, or taller, or it has bigger breasts.’ Other papers have not been so kind, one arguing that with his taste for gilt and marble and overstatement, Trump has all the style and subtlety of a latterday Liberace.

There has been much speculation about how much he is worth. Manhattan seems to be his own personal Monopoly board, it’s true, but some of the properties associated with him around the world are not necessarily owned by him.

He sued Timothy O’Brien, a New York Times reporter, over TrumpNation, a book that claimed he was worth considerably less that he said he was.

Does he, I ask, know how much he is worth?

‘I may be worth approximately $10 billion.’

Presumably, the goalposts keep moving, I say, and he finds himself competing with other billionaires.

‘You keep going forward. I think if you love what you’re doing, that’s what you do. I have a choice. I could stay home and relax but I chose not to do that. If you like what you’re doing, you keep going forward.

By the way, I know plenty of very rich people who are not happy people. Money can be a negative. I know people who became unhappy after making their money. Equally I know people without much money who are very content. So it’s a mindset.’

Is he happy? ‘I think so. Content.’

Kelly’s voice comes over the intercom. ‘It’s Ivanka.’

Trump looks at me knowingly, and says, ‘The famous Ivanka.’ He presses the speaker button on his phone.

‘Hi, honey, I have a powerful man in my office, from The Sunday Telegraph.’

‘Is he treating you nicely? Am I gonna have to come up there?’

‘He’s gonna treat me nicely until I read the story, then I’m going to say, “That sonofabitch, I should have never wasted my time.” How you doing, honey?’

‘Can you pick up?’

Father and daughter discuss diaries. Can she do London? He’s going to be in LA that day, etc. The famous Ivanka is his daughter by the equally famous Ivana; she of the blonde beehive who once said: ‘Don’t get mad, get everything.’

Their messy divorce in 1992 came after Ivana discovered Donald’s affair with American beauty queen Marla Maples, whom he went on to marry, and later divorce. He is now married to Melania Knauss, a former model from Slovenia 24 years his junior.

Ivanka works for the Trump Organisation, as do her two grown-up brothers. He puts the phone down.

‘That was about Dubai. Go ahead.’

We talk about how inheriting wealth can undermine children. ‘I think it can be tough, but it’s hard to not give them these things because they grew up in Mar-a-Lago [Palm Beach] or Trump Tower, so it’s easier said than done.

But you want to keep your children grounded, so mine work. Three out of five of them have come into the business – the others are too young – and they are doing a great job, Ivanka, Don and Eric. The fact they are working keeps them grounded.’

Does he assume most people are motivated by money?

‘I don’t think I’m motivated by money. I’m motivated by enjoyment. I do what I do well. If I was motivated only by money I would have stopped working.’

Trump himself was born into wealth, the son of property tycoon Fred Trump. After gaining an economics degree in 1968, he joined his father’s company and worked with him for five years. Would he have made it without his father’s fortune? ‘My father built in Brooklyn and Queens, and I learnt a lot from him in terms of how to negotiate. The biggest thing I learnt was that my father worked hard and was happy. I figured that is the way to be happy.’

A rare moment of reflection is upon us. When his father died 10 years ago, he says, it made him wonder what it was all for. ‘When you lose your parents you are an orphan all of a sudden, however old you are. It tells you that time is not something you can discount.

‘I had loving parents. My father always showed great confidence in me. Even before I was 20 he would send me out to do jobs. He praised me all the time. I’ve always had great success and it had a lot to do with that. If you sink your first 3ft putt, you know it’s going to go well for you for the rest of the round. So go ahead.’

I say the picture I have of him is of an optimist, a bullish one with a can-do spirit, but is there a melancholy or reflective side the public doesn’t see?

‘I think I have a lot of thoughtful moments, but I don’t think I’m always optimistic. I was the first to call the recession two years ago on CNN and NBC and everyone said I was kidding. That’s not an optimist. It’s a realist. I prepared very nicely and went to places that are booming.

Other people are in places that are dying. Either I was intelligent or lucky. I used to tell people not to take exploding mortgages because that’s what they do, explode in your face. You know, sub-prime. Two years ago I was saying don’t buy real estate because the price is too high. Now I am saying buy real estate because this is going to be a great time.’

During the property slump of the early Nineties, his business was a staggering $9.2 billion in debt. How did he deal with it? He called a meeting with his creditors and, after warmly welcoming them, pitched for more time to repay them. Within hours they were on side – but only on condition that Trump stopped spending like a man with unlimited resources.

Trump disagreed. Unless he behaved like a billionaire, how could he expect the business world to treat him like one? Within a year of this meeting, he had proved himself right. Not only was he able to repay the debt, but he was back in healthy profit.

In one of the 14 how-to-get-rich books he has published, he writes that a low point came when he passed a beggar on the street and realised ‘the beggar was worth $9.2 billion more than I was.’ How did he keep his nerve when he owed that amount?

‘Many people I knew were going bankrupt and I didn’t go bankrupt. I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt that I could handle pressure. I know a lot of people who are smart, but who can’t handle pressure, and they might as well not be smart.’

A man in a suit pops his head around the door and says: ‘Money’s in. Came in 2.30.’

‘Congratulations.’ ?Then to me: ‘Just did a big deal. Lot of money, and there were questions as to whether those involved would be able to come up with the money because it was agreed in better times, hundreds of millions. Go ahead.’

He talks about the successes in his public life a great deal, but what about the failures in his private life, namely that two of his marriages ended in divorce?

‘I find business a lot easier to understand than relationships,’ he says candidly. ‘I know some people who have a great relationship but can’t add two and two. Business for me is a natural thing. Relationships are not natural to me. I don’t blame myself.

I was married to two very good women before my third marriage but it was hard for them and unfair for them to compete against my business. It takes a lot of time. But look, there are lots of advantages too.’

Such as?

‘The money.’

Is he a difficult person to live with?

‘I think I am a very easy person to live with for the right woman. A person who gives you space. Takes the heat off. For the wrong kind of woman I am impossible. But the time-competition is tough for a woman. I don’t think it is easy being married to me, frankly.’

Does he have a strong sex drive? ‘Marla [his second wife] spoke about my sex drive but I didn’t. That’s all a personal thing. Generally speaking, I think a strong and successful person will have a stronger sex drive than someone who isn’t successful. History has proved that to be a fact, right?’

I presume this means he has no need of Viagra? He has big curling lips like Elvis and these now pucker as he mouths the word ‘No.’

His youngest child is two, he is 62. What’s it like being a father at that age?

‘I cope. I really like him, he’s a great kid with a great personality. I have a wife, Melania, who really takes care of the baby. She doesn’t put any pressure on me to do the things a lot of fathers have to do. She is totally content to really take care of that baby.’

We have been talking for an hour by this stage, and I can sense the time has come to wrap things up. He shakes my hand again. Afterwards, downstairs in the cool of the lobby, I feel slightly dazed.

He is exhausting company. Even here you can’t get away from his neurotic energy. The rose marble floors are teeming with tourists come to worship at this shrine to capitalism.

As souvenirs, they take away Donald Trump Signature Collection shirts, cufflinks and ties. For the budget-conscious there are baseball caps, key rings and mugs emblazoned with his name. In the gold-plated world of Donald Trump, it seems, everything is for sale and everything has a price… especially his name.


David Sedaris

David Sedaris is no stranger to embarrassing encounters: he’s made a career out of them. The most popular American humorist since Woody Allen talks to Nigel Farndale about the tics that make him tick.

I know a lot, perhaps too much, about the slight, gap-toothed American sitting opposite me, dwarfed by a large brown sofa that is as wide as it is deep and tall. I know that he, David Sedaris, once picked up crabs from a pair of underpants he bought at a charity shop, that he has a tendency to let his mouth hang open when bored, and that his Greek grandmother never forgave his equally Greek father for marrying a non-Greek woman who had ‘two distinct eyebrows’.

I know he is lazy and owns a Stadium Pal, an external catheter used by sports fans who don’t want to miss any of the action when they take a ‘comfort break’. I know, too, that when he came out at the age of 21 – he’s 51 now – his best friend said she always knew. ‘It’s the way you run,’ she said. ‘You let your arms flop instead of holding them to your sides.’

What else? I know that he used to wear fake padded buttocks, because he has ‘no ass’, and that he considers his calves to be his single best attributes. When I ask about these now, as we sit in the Thames-side office of his publishers, he rolls up his trousers, stands, turns and stretches up on tiptoes to see over the back of the giant sofa and wave at an imaginary friend in the distance.

‘See?’ he says over his shoulder. ‘They’re almost comically muscular, don’t you think? The equivalent of Popeye’s forearms. It must be genetic because I don’t work on them. I think I should have my calves preserved for the nation when I die.’

I’m not the only one who knows all these things about him, by the way. The four million or so people around the world who have bought his books know them, too. His sixth, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is published this month. And, as with the others, it is a collection of semi-autobiographical essays, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker. They are all about him, his family and his life, but how much he exaggerates the truth for comic effect is the question, the reason for the ‘semi’.

Did he really have such nightmare neighbours? Such dead-end jobs? Such strange encounters during his years as a hitchhiker? As with those other great semi-autobiographers Bill Bryson and Clive James, it doesn’t really matter – you’re just glad he wrote the books. And anyway, it’s in keeping with his sense of mischief. You suspect he considers it his mission in life to reduce the notoriously exacting fact checkers at The New Yorker to tears.

As a prose stylist he is often compared to that other great New Yorker writer James Thurber – dry, mordant, pitch perfect. As a human being, the most obvious comparison is with the comedian Larry David. Sedaris goes through life unintentionally winding people up, digging himself deeper, creating misunderstandings. His latest volume includes an account of an argument he had with a woman sitting next to him on a plane. When she fell asleep, he inadvertently coughed out the lozenge he was sucking and it landed in her lap. I won’t give away how he tries to extricate himself from this awkward situation, but suffice it to say it is a good illustration of how he manages to identify the absurdist humour that lies just below the surface of everyday life.

While we are talking, I notice there is a MacBook Air laptop on the floor by his feet. Nothing remarkable in that, except that, well, didn’t I read somewhere that he is so technophobic he only recently started using email? ‘I still don’t much,’ he says in a voice that manages to be clipped and prim, yet somehow also wispy. ‘Hugh [his partner of 16 years] bought me this because he was sick of us being stopped at security because of my typewriter. One security guard even asked me to turn my typewriter on. Anything that they haven’t seen a thousand times already that day is going to cause you problems.’

As a child growing up in the middle-class suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, Sedaris developed a repertoire of tics and obsessive/compulsive tendencies such as rocking and counting his steps, but the one that truly exasperated his teachers was his uncontrollable urge to lick light switches. He resolved most of them when he took up smoking as a teenager. It gave him something to do with his hands and focused his agitated mind.

He recently stopped smoking (a subject he wrote about at length, of course) and when I ask if any of his childhood compulsions have come back he thinks for a moment then sticks four fingers between the buttons on his shirt. ‘Nowadays, nearly all shirts are made with space for five fingers so I had to ask them to put little snappers between them so that when I bend over people can’t see my stomach…’ He demonstrates. ‘I have grey chest hairs, which no one wants to see. The snappers just make it so much easier.’

He was blessed with an equally eccentric family of one brother and four sisters (one of whom, Amy, is now a comedian), and an insensitive mocking father. But it was his chain-smoking, wisecracking mother who dominated the family. ‘Growing up, we would all sit around the table and talk for hours, six kids… all competing to make my mother laugh.’ His mother would give him cartons of cigarettes for his birthday – when he was in his teens – and once said to him: ‘I don’t know how it happened, but you’re mine. If that’s a big disappointment for you, just imagine what I must feel.’

She died in 1991 – of lung cancer – and, soon after, for reasons that may or may not be ripe for Freudian interpretation, his career took off. He was discovered, in a small club in Chicago, reading the diary he had kept since 1977 (it was his hilarious account of life working as an elf at Macy’s Santaland that really swung it). This led to regular readings on the highbrow National Public Radio. The readings turned into essays, the essays into books and the books become bestsellers.

Meanwhile, his readings began selling out the Carnegie Hall, with fans mouthing along to their favourite passages. Among guests on the David Letterman chat show, he alone gets to read from his own script, standing at a lectern as if giving a lecture. The comedy is partly to do with his delivery – he has the timing of a Woody Allen – and his lispy voice. He can’t stand it. ‘My voice turns my stomach,’ he says. ‘It used to be much more excitable, though, a much more girlish pitch.’

He divides his time between Paris, Normandy and, his home at the moment, London. But he is not sure whether his observation of London life will be funny enough to perform. ‘I just can’t do the accent,’ he says. ‘And so much of the humour of the English relies on nuance of delivery. Also there is much more of a language gap than people imagine.’ For example? ‘Well words like “fanny” and “pants”. They are innocent words in America, but here…’

I imagine that his neighbours in London don’t provide him with seams of comedy as rich as the ones he mined in New York for seven years. Take his elderly neighbour Helen, the star of the story overleaf. She died in 1998, the same year he and Hugh moved to France. ‘If someone is as unhappy and angry at life as Helen, your disapproval isn’t going to make any difference to her,’ he says. ‘She was a product of her time. The casual racism. Alan Bennett called people like that “urban peasants” because they never left their block. I admired her ego because I am so plagued by self-doubt. I like the fact that she didn’t mind confrontation. I would always avoid it.’

Example? ‘I went to Harrods and there was a guy next to me at the urinal and the attendant said: “You didn’t flush the toilet.” I mean, this guy’s job was to be pleasant to customers, yet there he was taking them on. I made a point of flushing and also made a point of not using too many towels, and all because I wanted this guy to like me.’

Although there is often kindness and affection in Sedaris’s portraits of the strangers he encounters, they also reveal that he has that thing that Graham Greene said all good writers must have: a chip of ice in his heart. He is quite ruthless in the way he brings Helen to the page, for example. ‘Really? You think? I thought I was giving the best of Helen! She was really like that. Her daughters, too. One was busy and couldn’t come to the funeral. When Helen was in the hospital dying, there were things I saw in that room which I wouldn’t record because she was a vain person. So there I held back.’

I ask if he is unkind to himself as a form of self-defence: if he says it first it takes the edge off it? ‘That’s a hard thing to navigate in Britain because you guys are harder to impress. There is a code to it. You say the opposite of what you mean. Americans are better at being positive and selling themselves. I don’t think it’s deliberate self-deprecation on my part. I just try to be upfront. Anyway, if you are going to write about other people then you have to be mean to yourself. ?You have to be prepared to tell the world what your scrawny ass looks like.’

You suspect that, as a young man, he took on strange jobs such as working in an autopsy centre because he knew that one day they would make good copy. He protests that this wasn’t the case. ‘It was more a matter of my always having been fascinated by death. I don’t know why you don’t hear more about these places. It was unbelievable, especially the autoerotic asphyxia cases. They would take crime-scene photos of the dead men: in a closet or a shower dressed in their wife’s clothing. The wife would have gone on vacation and come back to find him. He would have been dead for three or four days. I would look at those photos for hours to pass the time. Now, whenever I see an obituary of a man who died young and they don’t say why he died, I always assume it is autoerotic asphyxia.’

I get the feeling that Sedaris is quite passive aggressive, getting what he wants by putting himself down. Besides, for all his callousness, I have heard that he is a secret charity worker. True? ‘I did some stuff with Age Concern, yeah. I can’t do much. I can’t drive a car or fix anything. All I can do is clean.’ Inevitably, his charity work led to misunderstandings. ‘There was one old woman who had all these jars littering up the place and I helped her get rid of some of them, then the next thing I know she is complaining I stole them. She called my supervisor and complained. Said she might have needed them one day for picnics. I wanted to say trust me, her picnic days are behind her. I liked that job because it meant I could get to go in other people’s houses. See inside.’

Sedaris is the master of the poignant ending as, for example, when he describes in one essay how Hugh always loses him in crowds. He finds himself cursing his boyfriend as he tries to keep up, and plotting how he is going to leave him. He then takes the reader through his thought processes as he realises that he couldn’t live without Hugh. ‘”There you are,” I say. And when he asks where I have been, I answer honestly and tell him I was lost.’

‘I really would be lost without him,’ he says now. ‘He looks after me. He’s always up at dawn hewing logs and drawing water. And like in the house at the moment there is a pile of unopened mail and he will sort through it all when he gets back at the weekend. I just couldn’t do that.’

So what does he, Sedaris, bring to the relationship? ‘I can’t figure out what Hugh needs me for. I don’t bring anything to the relationship.’ He pauses before delivering one of his poignant, vaguely melancholy endings. ‘I guess I make him laugh.’


David Hockney

Forty years ago David Hockney left Bradford, peroxided his hair and headed for the Los Angeles hills. As a new book of the artist’s life and works is published, Nigel Farndale meets a ‘Yorkshire Californian’

The kidney-shaped swimming-pool is clue enough. It has been painted with squiggles so that if empty, it would look full, its surface rippling in the breeze, glinting in the sun. Overhanging it are giant palm fronds and cacti and, beyond them, a pink-walled house with a blue terrace. On this, looking out over the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by chairs and tables painted in egg-yolk yellows and dazzling reds, stands the owner. He has a boyish fringe, a gentle manner, and a soft, quaint, unhurried Yorkshire burr. It can only be… Alan Bennett.

David Hockney is used to the jokes. The two men grew up within eight miles of each other in the West Riding of God’s Own County. Alan Bennett once drew a self-portrait on a napkin for a waitress and signed it ‘Hockney’ and Hockney once signed one of his self-portraits ‘Bennett’. But actually, even at 66, our most celebrated living artist can always be distinguished from his literary doppelgänger by his more flamboyant dress sense. Today Hockney is wearing red slippers with yellow spots, a turquoise watch, checked trousers, blue felt braces and a gingham shirt with a poppy in one of its buttonholes (I brought one over from England for him, to remind him of home).

Inside, in a room with a trompe-l’oeil painted fireplace, a grand piano and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, there is a three-sided box on a table: a true mirror. ‘Sit down here,’ Hockney says, pulling back a chair. ‘Now look at yourself.’ I do. Unnervingly my reflection is not reversed. Hockney just bought this mirror and it has given him a new impetus to do self-portraits. ‘I usually only draw myself in down periods,’ he says, slowly, ruminatively. ‘I do, actually. I suppose that’s why I often draw myself looking grim. I just think, “Let’s have a look in the mirror.” When you are alone and you look in a mirror you never put on a pleasing smile. Well, you don’t, do you?’

One of the most noticeable things about Hockney is his pleasing smile. It is lopsided, wry, infectious; it makes him seem permanently amused at the world, at himself; and it gives him an air of naive amiability. But, as he says himself, his dreamy bearing has a lot to do with the partial deafness from which he has suffered for 20 years. He can only hear with the help of powerful – and of course, Hockney being Hockney, differently coloured – hearing aids.

There seems to be a lot of activity in the house: Richard, Hockney’s studio assistant, is on the phone; Ann, one of his oldest friends and regular models, is talking to her husband David; there is a photographer and her assistant; a home help; and a dachshund. I ask whether I need to raise my voice. ‘Well we should maybe go up to the studio where it’s quieter,’ Hockney says, leading the way up an iron staircase, past a mobile of day-glo cut-out fish hanging from a branch, and up a path to an airy studio. Here there are easels, pots of paintbrushes, large model hands for drawing practice, numerous paint-spattered armchairs, a treadmill unplugged and gathering dust (Hockney, a chainsmoker, had a mild heart attack in 1990, but now he just swims every day to try and keep fit) and, on the walls, new portraits in watercolour.

‘I can hear fine in here,’ Hockney says, tapping a cigarette out of a packet of Camel Lights. ‘It’s only when there is a lot of background noise that I struggle.’ He lights up. ‘You know, the loss of one sense often heightens another. In my case I felt I could appreciate space much better when I lost my hearing, I think it’s because sound locates you in space. You have to compensate somehow. I am interested in space, me. That’s why I like painting the Grand Canyon. And the Yorkshire moors.’

David Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937, the fourth of five children. He attended Bradford Grammar School, where one of his reports described him as being ‘light relief’. Inspired by the work of Stanley Spencer and Picasso he went on to Bradford School of Art and then the Royal College of Art, from which he graduated with the gold medal. At first his work was quite abstract. Then, in 1963, he travelled to California and developed a Pop Art style all his own – blazing colours, delicacy of line, geometrical buildings painted in oil and acrylic. Bronzed and naked young men by the sides of pools were a recurring theme, but it was the play of light on the water, like strands of spaghetti, that interested Hockney as much as the bare bottoms. A Bigger Splash in 1967 marked the apotheosis of the Hockney technique and, after that, he changed direction and became more naturalistic.

His best-known portrait, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, was painted in 1970-71. It was of the fashion designer Ossie Clark (who was later murdered), his wife Celia and their cat Percy. Although out of fear of repeating himself Hockney has experimented over the years with faxing, Xeroxing, snapshots assembled into cubist compositions, and opera stage design, he has always returned to portraiture, playing out his life on canvas by painting his famous friends (Andy Warhol, Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden among others), his lovers and, again and again, his parents, most notably with My Parents, painted in 1977. A collection of these, Hockney’s Portraits and People, is about to be published and, as I flick through the book with him, I note that it amounts to a visual autobiography. ‘The same people do appear over and over,’ he says. ‘I’ve found it easier because I really know them. Portraits are about the relationship of the painter to the subject.’

Do his subjects feel as if they are being immortalised on canvas, given that most of his portraits seem to end up in galleries? ‘I don’t know. But I did once say to Albert Clark, Celia’s son, that he and I had a strange thing in common. We both have a portrait of our parents hanging in the Tate Gallery.’ He draws thoughtfully on his cigarette. ‘I generally don’t ask the subject what they think of what I’ve done. It doesn’t really matter what they think. I’m not out to flatter. That’s not what it’s about.’

Last year he and Lucian Freud sat for each other; what did he learn about portrait painting from that experience? ‘It made me feel more sympathetic towards the people who sit for me. I sat for 120 hours for Lucian; he would only sit for three hours for me. He wouldn’t co-operate, really. Too restless. The difference between us is, Lucian is shy and I’m a chatterbox, except when I am painting. I don’t let people talk when I paint. Well, I don’t mind people talking, but I don’t answer back because I’m tuned out. Lips moving are very hard to get. Actually Lucian and I talked quite a lot when he was painting me. He let me smoke, too, but only if I didn’t tell Kate Moss, who was also sitting for him and who also smokes.’ There is a photograph of Freud’s portrait of Hockney on the studio wall. I ask him if he thinks it flattering. ‘Some people thought he made me look a lot older than I am and I thought, “So what? It’s his account of looking at me, not my account.” Jacob Rothschild, I remember, said, “He’s made you look like a Yorkshireman, David.” I said, “Well, I am a Yorkshireman.” He said: “I mean, as opposed to a painter.” And I said, “Can’t Yorkshiremen be painters?”‘ He gives a throaty laugh. ‘I suppose Lucian would always see me as a Yorkshireman because of my accent compared to his.’

David Hockney does say ‘twenny’ for twenty and ‘liddle’ for little, but otherwise living in California for most of his adult life doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on his flat northern vowels. ‘It’s because I did all the talking,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a matter of me trying to retain my identity over here. I’ve never bothered about my accent. When I first went to London, to the RCA, I was mocked for it. People would shout, “Trouble at mill, Mr Hockney?” I used to smile and think, “They have no idea what Yorkshire is like, these people.” Probably my deafness is connected with my retaining an accent.’

Hockney inherited his deafness from his father, Kenneth, who died in 1978. He also inherited a pacifist sensibility, which was why he refused to do National Service and worked instead as a hospital orderly for two years. His father wore two wristwatches ‘in case one was wrong’ and once took his armchair out into the street to wait by a phonebox in case it rang – he had placed an ad in the local paper selling a billiard table and had given out the phonebox number. His father, I say, seems to have been an eccentric; does he take after him? ‘Some of my friends who knew my father say, “You are getting more and more like Kenneth.” He never went out of the house without a hat, a tie and a cane. I suppose he was a dandy of sorts but, later on, he would put string in his boots. He was a conscientious objector, like me, but the big difference between us was, he was ferociously anti-smoking whereas I have always been fanatically pro it. He wasn’t a sophisticated man. He hardly ever left Bradford. He was a member of CND and a socialist with a rather romantic and naive idea of what Soviet Russia was like, all cornfields and ballet. He would have gone mad for email because he was always sending letters to world leaders – Eisenhower, Mao, Stalin – telling them what was what. I think he imagined the Politburo would hold up his letter and say, “Hold everything, Kenneth Hockney has written again!” He was a humble Bradford clerk who was horrified by big bombs. Quite right, too. Mother was in charge. She thought my father rather comic, I think.’

Laura Hockney was a devout Methodist who kept scrupulous ledger books during the whole of her married life. In them she noted every penny spent from the family budget on food and clothing. Has he, I ask, inherited his mother’s caution with money? ‘I don’t know anything about money. It’s always been a by-product of what I do. The moment I could earn a living as a painter I was rich because I was doing what I wanted to do. There was a time when I thought my money was becoming a burden because I just wanted to spend my time in the studio and I couldn’t. I got rid of the beach house in Malibu and now I just have Pembroke Studios in Kensington, and this place. I don’t want any more because I don’t want to look after them. I don’t want paperwork. I’d rather stay in hotels.’

You would need a spare couple of million to buy a Hockney painting – even a roll of his old holiday snaps that were found in Bradford and sold at auction went for £11,000. Does David Hockney know what he is worth? ‘Not really.

No, I don’t actually. I don’t know how I’d add it up. I’m too busy in here to bother, really.’ He shrugs.

‘I never seem to run out.’

Bradford in the 1950s wasn’t a hotbed of liberalism, one imagines. What did his parents think when he came out as gay? ‘They never said anything. They wouldn’t. On the other hand they knew I wasn’t going to take too much notice of what they said about how I lived my life. I don’t know whether I would have been so open if I’d stayed in Bradford. Remember, I lived in bohemia here in LA. It’s a tolerant place. They know about human failings.’ He takes a sip of carrot juice. ‘When I first arrived here it seemed such a sexy, sunny, naked place. California having a climate like it does, people wear fewer clothes. That is why they look after their bodies more. The gay bar scene was big here then. I was amazed. I thought: what organisation! I bleached my hair and felt very free.’

He was promiscuous? ‘When I first came here, yes. It was so easy.’

How promiscuous? ‘I didn’t keep count. It was the only time I was. I remember one very attractive young man who was Mr California Dream. I brought him back with me on a trip to England but I had to send him back to California after a week when I realised he had no curiosity about anything. It was just lust on my part.’ He flicks through the book. ‘I was attracted to California for another reason, though, one which I didn’t realise at the time and that was the sense of space. I’m claustrophobic, you see. Also the climate attracts you. It’s 20 times brighter here than in London. I don’t think the people here really appreciate what they have. It sometimes takes a foreigner to come and see a place and paint it. I remember someone saying they had never really noticed the palm trees here until I painted them.’

At one stage he seemed to become almost as well-known for his flamboyant dress sense – the wide-brimmed hats, the peroxide hair, the big owlish glasses – as for his paintings. Was this just vanity? ‘All young artists know that somehow you have to attract attention to get people to look at your pictures. My vanity as an artist is that I want the pictures seen.’

That sounds quite cynical. ‘I didn’t wish to be a celebrity. I just wanted to be an artist. It was always about the pictures.’

When, in 1966, he met Peter Schlesinger, a good-looking young student, his years of promiscuity came to an end. ‘That was my first long-term relationship,’ he says. ‘Isn’t that what we are all looking for? My relationship with Peter lasted for five years.’

Schlesinger was the subject of some of Hockney’s best-known paintings. Was he the love of his life? ‘Not quite. Peter wasn’t as keen on music as I was. Think I took him to too many Wagner operas. I suppose if you are not that keen on music, Wagner must be a big bore… I have a relationship now…’ He turns and points to a portrait on the wall of a young lantern-jawed man. ‘But John is stuck in England. They wouldn’t let him back in because he stayed two days too long last time. I’ll get him back.’

Is Hockney difficult to live with? ‘Well, you do have to be selfish as an artist. Painting is a solitary activity. I like people, I’m just unsocial because of my hearing, not antisocial. My sister pointed out that a lot of my paintings have a lot of loneliness in them. Empty chairs. She did. She pointed that out. I thought, “That’s a good interpretation, actually.”‘

There have been many interpretations of Hockney’s work, I say. One thinks of Sur la Terrasse, which shows Schlesinger turning his back on the painter as their relationship came to an end in 1971. Does knowing the narrative behind a painting help appreciate it? ‘I don’t think so. Everything after a while becomes decorative, which is why you are not moved by looking at a crucifixion picture in the National Gallery. You are looking at it as art, at its formal qualities.’ He licks the corner of his mouth, a tic of his. ‘With Sur la Terrasse I could just have been thinking, “Doesn’t he look cute from the back?”‘

He closes the book and, looking over his glasses with clear blue eyes, says, ‘Do you want to know what moves me?’ He fetches a photocopy of a Rembrandt sketch showing a group of people helping a child take its first steps. ‘I think this is the greatest drawing ever made by anyone. It’s a very ordinary subject which any viewer has experienced and observed. Think how fast his hand must have been moving when he did this. Look at the way this woman’s head is tilted so you can see her expression. Look at the weightlessness here. I think this is far superior to the Mona Lisa.’

Rembrandt’s skill clearly affects him but what about the subject matter? Does he wish he had had a child he could teach to walk? He flicks his cigarette butt on to the studio floor and stubs it out with his slipper. ‘I did see a child learn to walk. Albert Clark. Perhaps that is why I find this so moving.’

Is it true he had an affair with Clark’s mother, Celia? He purses his lips. ‘It was never that serious. I would have liked to have had children. I think about that a lot. As a present to my assistant, Richard, I paid for him to have his vasectomy reversed so that he could have children. And he did, too. And is very happy. I used to look at my brother [who is Hockney’s accountant, and a former mayor of Bradford] and his children and think he had it all wrong.

I thought, “How conventional of him. What is all the fuss about?” Now I don’t.’

Because he’s older? ‘I was with my mother on her deathbed four years ago. It made me think.’

Did he paint his mother then, as Monet painted his dying wife? ‘I did, as it happens.’

Wasn’t that cold of him? ‘It’s what an artist does. It’s how an artist responds to the world. I suppose it was a way of dealing with it, or not dealing with it.’

He has had to deal with a lot of grief in his life. ‘At one point I was flying weekly to New York where I had four different friends dying from Aids in four different hospitals. I lost a hell of a lot of friends. That is why New York is so different now. Two generations were wiped out, really. Very talented people.’

How many friends did he lose? ‘A lot. Friends and acquaintances. I couldn’t write it down, I must tell you. I once tried but I couldn’t do it, it drove me mad, actually. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to answer the phone in case it brought more news of premature death.’

Does he feel lucky to have survived?

‘Well, I was.’

On one level a studio high up in the Hollywood Hills seems exactly the sort of place to encounter one of Quentin Crisp’s ‘stately homos of England’. Hockney seems at home here, comfortable in his skin, at ease with the Californian banality. His language, like his paintings, like the primary colours his house is painted in, seems simplified. And he has a childlike candour and curiosity. He loves gadgets and mirrors and cameras (as he demonstrated in his bestselling book Secret Knowledge, in which he showed how the old masters had used a camera lucida for their portraits).

‘I never had any self-doubt,’ he tells me at one point in the studio on the hill. ‘But there were times when the art world would say, “What are you doing wasting your time on photography?” Of course I didn’t see it that way because I was finding things out.’

Hockney is unassuming about his work. And his wit is as dry as a Yorkshire stone wall. When I ask him about his enduring popularity – the critic Robert Hughes once called him ‘the Cole Porter of contemporary art’ – he smiles and says, ‘Sometimes there is a prettiness to my work. I can’t help it. I can’t help putting the charm in.’ And later, when I ask him which place he regards as home, Yorkshire or California, he says without missing a beat, ‘I’m a Yorkshire Californian.’

‘Let me show you something,’ he says, leading the way back down to the house. When we reach the door, he stops and adds, ‘Wait here.’ He disappears inside and, when he re-emerges, I follow his tall and stooping figure along a corridor. ‘Now, look at that,’ he says. Through another doorway I can see a mirror which is reflecting a predominately red painting of a village on the opposite wall, out of sight. It looks three-dimensional. ‘Amazing what mirrors do, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘That’s Sledmere in Yorkshire. I painted it in 1997 when a friend of mine, Jonathan, was dying of cancer in Wetherby. I would visit him every day from Bridlington, where my mother was, and I kept driving through this village. I want to go again to paint Yorkshire next year. Yorkshire is like the American West because you can see a long way. I like that, seeing a long way.’


David Gilmour

David Gilmour is the model rock-star plutocrat – modest, creative, generous. Until the talk turns to money… and the Rolling Stones. ‘How much do they need?’ he asks Nigel Farndale. ‘It’s like a sexual compulsion’.

An arrow of barking geese spirals down towards a lake. Horses stand dozily in meadows, swishing their tails against the early summer flies. There are copses of woodland here, and thickening hedgerows and, sometimes, because this parcel of West Sussex is owned by a rock star, fans. ‘There is a public footpath beyond those fields over there,’ David Gilmour says with a lethargic nod. ‘Fans do sometimes walk it and I see them videoing the house. On the whole, though, they leave us alone.’ The ‘house’ he refers to is a rambling, ivy-covered farmhouse with an Aga, the odd dog hair on the upholstery, and dozens of gymkhana rosettes – but no platinum discs, no leopardskin throws. The ‘us’ is his wife, the novelist Polly Samson, and four of his eight children (he has four from an earlier marriage, now grown up).

Standing barefoot in jeans and T-shirt, Gilmour seems a solid and unyielding figure with an angular head and an impassive and narrow stare. There is, you soon sense, depth below his still surface. He is a David, never a Dave. In fact he is David Gilmour CBE, partly in recognition of his philanthropy, which included giving the proceeds from the sale of his London house to the homeless charity Crisis: £4 million.

He is polite and friendly but also taciturn – almost introverted. When he speaks, it is softly, with a crack in his voice. The son of a Cambridge don, he is also what used to be called well-spoken. ‘We never wanted to pretend we were anything other than nice, middle-class boys,’ he says of his band, Pink Floyd. ‘We never pretended to be working-class, like Mick.’

You have to get into the rhythm of his speech, which is as measured and precise as his guitar playing. He also has a public school way of qualifying everything with ‘slightly’, ‘pretty’ and ‘fairly’, as if afraid of exaggeration. Perhaps it is simply that there is no need to exaggerate the Pink Floyd story, nor his. He was lead vocalist, lead guitarist and joint songwriter, with bassist Roger Waters, of one of the biggest rock bands in history. In their glory days – the 1970s – the big Pink Floyd concept albums broke records effortlessly. One in four British households is said to own a copy of their biggest, Dark Side of the Moon. Last summer, when the band reformed for Live8 after an acrimonious split 20 years ago, they stole the show.

When Gilmour released a new solo album earlier this year, on his 60th birthday, it went straight to number one. A good present, I say, as we sit down in his drawing-room. Long pause. ‘It’s hard to put into words, but I feel more proud of On an Island than anything else I’ve done. We’ve got a nice system in this room and we like to sit in here of an evening and play the whole album through, pretty loud, and it definitely still gives me a thrill. I rarely listen to albums after I’ve released them. Normally one has been over every note of every instrument so incessantly and anally that one is sick of it.’

He is not a man in a hurry. ‘With Pink Floyd we packed a whole career into two or three years, now it takes me a decade to do one bloody album. I think I’ve grown lazy in old age. Bits of music do nevertheless keep arriving serendipitously at my fingertips whenever I pick up a guitar and, after 10 years of jotting them down and not doing anything with them, it was starting to feel a bit rude to one’s muse.’

On an Island is, as Gilmour might say, pretty good. It is a warm and lyrical album with all the tonal beauty, washes of sound and soaring, atmospheric guitar playing Pink Floyd fans could hope for. When a melody comes to him, does he immediately know it is new? ‘The bane of my life is when muscle memory takes over and my fingers play a tune they are familiar with. You have to do something to get yourself out of that comfort zone and one way for me is playing a piano, or using a different guitar tuning. Otherwise it is like doodling.’

He has sometimes woken up with a new tune in his head. ‘It is very odd because you think surely that is something I have done before, but then you realise it isn’t. ‘Fat Old Sun’, which we have been doing on this tour [his current solo tour], I always thought I had nicked from somewhere. But in 30 years I’ve never found out where, so I guess I’ve got away with it.’

Oasis must feel like that all the time, I suggest. He half-smiles. ‘Oasis I can pin down in a second. I can usually work out the three different songs they have lifted.’

Most of the lyrics for the new album were written by his wife. ‘She can express my thoughts better than I can,’ Gilmour says. It is a telling comment. Polly thinks he is ‘a bit autistic’. Wives often say that of their husbands, I point out, but what does he think she means by it? ‘She thinks I’m not that articulate, and I tend to agree. She thinks my guitar does my speaking for me, better than I can with words. I can become quite selfish when I am in the final stages of recording an album. Me, me, me. But otherwise I am quite shy. That might seem like a paradox, but even on stage I am fairly hopeless at introducing myself. I can’t do the raconteur moments between songs.’ Long pause. ‘Also I’m not comfortable giving autographs. I don’t understand why people want them. I will walk round the block to avoid an autograph hunter.’

The theme of the new album – those Pink Floyd habits die hard – is mortality. One song, ‘This Heaven’, reflects Gilmour’s atheism. ‘There is an element of contended resignation in that song. It extols the virtues of living in the moment and accepting your mortality. Perhaps the closest I will get to immortality will be through Dark Side of the Moon. I think that record will go on being played for a while yet.’

He was 27 when Pink Floyd recorded it. ‘It was a very productive period but, when I think about it now, I don’t feel shocked at how young I was then. Hendrix, Otis Reading and Janis Jopling were all dead at about 27. All those people had had long, illustrious careers by then. Your twenties should be your high-energy, creative years. You could say that after Dark Side we had achieved all we wanted to, and certainly it was hard to get up and running with Wish You Were Here [in 1975].’

Back then he had long hair and androgynous good looks – he had been a male model briefly in his teens. He still has high cheekbones and full lips but has he found growing old and grey disturbing? Is that what the brooding on his mortality is about? ‘Not really. I look in the mirror and I see the same face I saw then. Some of the hair has gone, unfortunately. And I’ve put on some weight but I’m perfectly at ease with the ageing process.’

Does he have a narcissistic side? ‘Polly thinks I’m the least vain person she has ever met, but I have got my vanities, yes. I’m a bit embarrassed by that young chap at times. If I hear him speak, like in the Live at Pompeii DVD [a concert filmed in 1972], I do find it excruciating.’

Because? ‘Because he was pretentious and naive.’

Gilmour did all the usual rock ‘n’ roll things. He took his share of drugs and collected classic sports cars and vintage aircraft (he has a pilot’s licence). But none of it seemed to make much of a dent in his fortune. The Rich List has him down for about £75 million, but that is probably shy of the true figure. Does he even know what he is worth? ‘No, I don’t actually. And I would much rather drop quietly out of that list. It is all guesswork anyway. One can calculate what the value of one’s tangible assets are. I’m a director of Pink Floyd Music Ltd and if I wanted to sell my shares in that, with future royalties and what the name is worth, well…’ He exhales and shakes his head. ‘I haven’t a clue what someone would offer for that, but obviously it is a valuable asset. There are people who would be able to make much more from that than I do, because I and the others have certain limits to what we will allow to be done in our name. I suppose we owe it to fans not to allow, say, ‘Us and Them’ to be used in an advert. You have to respect their wishes.’

Corny question, I know, but does his money bring him happiness? ‘I don’t think much of my satisfaction is related to my material possessions, but then how would I know? I am happiest when going for a walk with my wife and children in the countryside and that is free.’

But can he imagine living in a caravan and being happy? ‘I’ve just been living in a caravan this last weekend, or rather a motor home, for the Badminton horse trials. I’m perfectly at ease with that sort of thing.’

Does it worry him that his children will have a skewed take on the world because of his wealth? ‘Yes, it does worry me and we are very active in trying to convince them that they are unusual in this. But they are not going to have it all their lives. They are going to have to earn it themselves. My younger children especially are clear on those realities, I think.’

His intention is to unburden himself of much of his wealth before he dies. ‘Children who are given money are emasculated. It’s a big disincentive to making your own way in life and I want my children to have the satisfaction that I have had from making my own way.’

I suggest that his wealth seems to make him unhappy, or at least guilty. ‘I do feel uncomfortable about the degree of wealth that comes with the territory I occupy. We live in a capitalist society, I suppose, and it is a matter of supply and demand. And I do look at other bands and think, well, we are a f— of a sight better than them. But it is extraordinarily perverse that I as a musician am paid so much more than, say, a doctor, or a nurse, or a teacher.’

Did he find the disparity of income between himself and his father, a zoology lecturer, embarrassing? He becomes animated, by his standards. ‘Yes, I did. I did. He’s retired now but he worked hard and did something of great value to the world, researching genetics. It felt obscene the way I was treated compared to him. There were moments when we were both embarrassed by it all.’

Does he look at some of his peers, such as the Rolling Stones, and wonder why they are still so driven by money; endlessly touring and milking their reputations? ‘I think it’s ridiculous, actually. Mick and Keith should get a life. It’s like a strange, sexual compulsion. How much do they need? I think a lot of it is the applause. It’s a powerful drug, 50,000 people appearing to adore you. I’m a big Stones fan but they haven’t done anything that matches their earlier stuff in years. As Bob Dylan shows, it doesn’t have to be that way. He can still come up with material that is completely new and interesting.’

The unexpectedly waspish tone of this comment makes you wonder whether the big Pink Floyd bust-up all those years ago was entirely the fault of Roger Waters – the usual theory. Throughout the 1970s the two men fought for artistic control of the band. Waters always took the prize for pomposity and, later, for animosity – he was spectacularly rude about his bandmates. Finally, in 1986, he launched a legal action to stop them from carrying on as Pink Floyd. The rancour descended into farce when Waters claimed to have patented the inflatable flying pig that features in Pink Floyd’s extravagant stage show, forcing the remaining three members to build another inflatable flying pig, with a pair of testicles added. Waters lost the court battle. Before he rang Gilmour to persuade him to take part in a one-off Pink Floyd performance at Live8 last summer, the two men had scarcely spoken for 20 years, apart from through their lawyers.

‘I do feel that I never did Roger any harm,’ Gilmour says now. ‘Yet he did his best to harm me. Live8 gave me some closure. It was good to get some of the bile that had been building up for 20 years out of the way. You don’t want to die with unhealed wounds. The enmity between Roger and me has been an uncomfortable and negative thing that I haven’t liked living with. It was good that the Pink Floyd story didn’t end on a sour note. Now we can be on civil terms and enjoy a chat once in a while.’ Have they stayed in touch since Live8? Pause. ‘No, we haven’t really, but we have emailed each other within the last months or so.’

Pink Floyd was the undoubted highlight of Live8, but there must have been a lot of egos to accommodate that night. ‘We were so nice and modest about it all that when they told us there were not enough dressing-rooms and we would have to share, we said OK, fine. Then we found out that everyone else had their own proper, assigned dressing-room because they had insisted on it. We had to share ours with Snow Patrol, or someone. I think we should have been slightly more superstar-ish about it.’ Don’t you just love that ‘or someone’?

After Live8, Pink Floyd were reportedly offered $200 million to tour America, but Gilmour quashed any speculation that the band might re-form permanently. He also announced that he would be donating to charity his share of the royalties from the upsurge in sales of the band’s albums. Even so, for all his magnanimity, it must have given Gilmour some satisfaction that his new solo album this year went to number one, while the solo efforts of Waters, the self-styled ‘creative genius’ without whom Pink Floyd could not exist, have languished.

That Roger Waters, I say, trying to goad a little; he was a megalomaniac, wasn’t he? ‘Possibly always, but, for a lot longer than people think, his megalomania was controllable.’ Pause. ‘But it’s a boring old subject. I think we worked pretty effectively together until after the Wall album in 1979. Besides, there is something to be said for creative tension. We did complement each other, Roger and me.’ Another pause. ‘I’ve got that again with Polly.’

What? She’s suing him? He almost laughs. ‘No, I mean that she has a different area of talent to mine. It is almost onomatopoeic, the marriage of her words and my music.’


Clarissa Eden

Sitting in an upright chair in her large, high-ceilinged drawing room in west London, Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon, seems slight and wan, as if painted in watercolour rather than oil.

It’s a trick of the light, perhaps – no electric lamps are on and, as the morning is overcast, the light that streams in through the sash windows is soft and grainy. In conversation she seems vigorous and knowing. And she is only 87. As the widow of Sir Anthony Eden, who was prime minister during the Suez Crisis, you imagine she must be older.

She moves a baton to find space for a coffee pot. “This? It’s made of sandalwood. Nehru gave it to me. I had been admiring it and he said ‘I want you to have it’.” Such was the extraordinary circle she moved in.

She was born into the aristocracy: her uncle was Winston Churchill, her mentor when she studied philosophy at Oxford was Sir Isaiah Berlin and when she did her season, she danced with Donald Maclean, the spy. She counted Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Lucian Freud, Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, Ian Fleming, Nancy Mitford and Orson Welles among her friends. Before she married, indeed, her life was all about culture and the arts. Afterwards it became all about politics. “My life,” she says, “divided into two parts.”

That is how her memoirs, published this week, are structured. She had requested that her diaries remained unpublished until 10 years after her death; why the change of heart? “I didn’t want to write it, as I don’t like parading myself, but when I met Cate I thought perhaps I can do it now.”

She refers to Cate Haste, the wife of Melvyn Bragg, who has edited the book and written introductions to the various phases in Lady Avon’s life. Previously, she was the co-author, with Cherie Blair, of The Goldfish Bowl. She is sitting alongside us now. “Clarissa needed a lot of persuading to write this book,” Haste says.

But it proved easy once she started, in part because, as Lady Avon points out, her generation corresponded more than people do today. “One would even write to friends one was seeing almost every day,” she says. “Everyone was very nice in sending my letters back to me for this book. I didn’t keep all mine. I remember throwing some of Isaiah’s into the wastepaper basket.”

When I note that there is a Mitford feel to her writing, she says, “Oh dear”. I mean the irony and the dry humour. “I don’t have the argot they did. Nancy became my friend, although I saw more of Debo.”

Did she, like the Mitford sisters, feel cheated of a formal university education? “From the age of 16 I did feel very much cheated, mainly because I wasn’t well taught. I didn’t take the school certificate because I was so bored. None of my female contemporaries got to university at all. Not one.” Although she didn’t take a degree, she studied at Oxford in the 1930s and was, according to Antonia Fraser, “the dons’ delight, because she was beautiful and extremely intellectual”. She was quite the bohemian, too, wearing suits in the style of Marlene Dietrich. But the impending war meant there was an air of menace, as well as frivolity. “I knew for certain that there would be a war, because of my uncle. He had been prognosticating throughout the Thirties. I knew because he knew, so to speak. The people who didn’t want to know believed in Chamberlain.”

She was living in London during the war, decoding ciphers in the Foreign Office. “I was in the bowels of the building, so I never met Anthony [then foreign secretary], who was upstairs. It sounds awful to say it, but the war was exciting. The bombing was going on all round. One was young and didn’t think about it. I lived on the top floor of the Dorchester and went on the roof to watch the fireworks. At that age you don’t imagine that anything is going to happen to you.”

She seems to have had many suitors at the time. “I don’t know, I don’t know. Cate seems to think so.”

“It’s true,” says Cate Haste. “Men fell in love with you quite a lot. That was my impression from reading the correspondence.”

Both Duff Cooper, the wartime information minister, and Evelyn Waugh protested their love for her in their letters. Did she not realise this at the time? “It didn’t make a great impression on me, which is rather awful. Sounds rather conceited, but it didn’t somehow.”

When her engagement to Anthony Eden was announced in 1952 her friends were shocked. “They almost didn’t take it seriously. It seemed an extraordinary thing to happen.” Extraordinary in what way? “I wasn’t of that world.”

He was 23 years older; did that age difference bother her? “No, it was more that none of my friends were his friends, we lived in different worlds, socially.”

Evelyn Waugh cautioned against the marriage. “He opposed it, assuming it couldn’t happen on religious grounds because Anthony was a divorcee. It came as a shock to him to him when I told him. Our friendship never recovered. Bang! That was it. Other Catholic friends were more civilised about it.”

Soon after she married, she found herself in the extraordinary position of having to take sides between her uncle Winston, who was dragging out his resignation as prime minister, and her husband, who was the heir apparent. “My sympathies had to be with my husband. Anthony didn’t push when it was time for Winston to go. It is never easy to go, as Tony Blair showed.”

History doesn’t always repeat itself, though. Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1955, Eden called a snap election and won. “Yes, it paid off for my husband. He increased the majority.

“I’m sure he was right to call that election when he did. It is all about timing. He felt the need to have a mandate on his own terms, rather than inheriting one. I would have thought that a good idea, but then I don’t know much about Gordon Brown.”

Mr Brown thought a snap election was a good idea until the polls changed. “Hmm, yes. I don’t think we were persecuted by the polls in quite the same way in those days.”

But she – they – were persecuted by the media. “You mean during the Suez Crisis? Yes. Absolutely. Anthony was no good at spin. It didn’t occur to him.”

I ask how she imagines her husband would fare in today’s political climate, given that some consider the Eton-educated David Cameron too posh for purpose.

“I suppose that applied to my husband even more. He seemed pretty posh at the time, but as he had just come out of the war he genuinely liked talking to the man in the street.”

I suggest that people thought it appropriate to be ruled by their social superiors then. “I don’t think it was that. They liked him because they knew he liked them. That was the reason.”

Clarissa Eden was haunted by an unguarded comment she made during Suez. “In the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing-room.”

It became one of the most quoted comments on the Crisis, cited as proof that the Edens were divorced from reality. “Both Anthony and I were quite naive about how the press works. Neither of us should have been, but we were.”

Nevertheless, an impression built up that Eden was unduly influenced by his wife; that he consulted her politically during Suez. Indeed, in her diary, Lady Jebb, the wife of the British ambassador to Paris, alluded to “Clarissa’s war”.

I ask if there was any truth in that perception. “Oh no, he wouldn’t have done that. I might have given him gossip but that was all.”

But she was politically astute, I note. She knew exactly what was going on during the Suez Crisis. “Only because he told me.”

So he would share his innermost thoughts? “He would tell me what was happening in Cabinet, but I don’t think I ever gave him advice. I wanted to be supportive. I didn’t egg him on.”

Any advice for Samantha Cameron? “So much depends on the husband in terms of how the wife copes with it all. She appears to have much stronger views than I ever had. She has a career, after all. My only advice to Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron would be to keep a diary. Mine was frivolous. About people. What they said and how they behaved.”

Her husband’s reputation was permanently tarnished by Suez. Her anger about that is palpable. “They were a whole bunch of prima donnas.”

The Americans behaved shabbily? “Quite. Eisenhower later regretted his stance.” She also blames Harold Macmillan, then foreign secretary, first for giving her husband the impression that the Americans would not intervene, then for buckling too soon when the Americans brought economic pressure to bear.

“Macmillan was too hasty. He used the American threat to withhold the IMF loan as an excuse to back down.” When Eden resigned in January 1957, officially due to ill health, Macmillan “wept crocodile tears”, according to Lady Avon.

Did the Suez experience leave her husband bitter? “If he was bitter he never showed it to me. Not bitter, no. That wasn’t in his nature. He was just very sad about it.”

Does she imagine Blair now thinks of Iraq as his Suez? “I shouldn’t think so, do you? I don’t know much about Mr Blair’s psychology but I doubt he thinks in any way that he has been defeated.”

Nevertheless: “I suppose Mr Blair will be judged on Iraq, as Anthony was judged on Suez.”

There is a steeliness below Lady Avon’s polite and self-deprecating surface. She talks in a precise and measured way, rarely elaborating. Her prose style is like that, too.

When it is time for her photograph to be taken, her instructions are unambiguous: “Don’t ask me to smile. I’m sick of smiling in photographs. I want to look glum.”
She was Winston Churchill’s niece, Anthony Eden’s wife, and her friends included Isaiah Berlin, Evelyn Waugh and Greta Garbo. As she publishes her memoirs at the age of 87, the extraordinary Clarissa Eden talks to Nigel Farndale


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, ‘right wing Leftie’ and raconteur, hates God and bores. But most of all, he hates losing an argument…

Christopher Hitchens likes to point out, he never misses a deadline, or a plane – despite his fondness for ‘strong waters’ and his disinclination to wear a watch.

But what of trains? I have arranged to meet him at Paddington at 10.45am and, according to my watch, that was two minutes ago.

I am to accompany the 61-year-old author and journalist on the 10.50 to Oxford because, as he says, it will be ‘a nice prompt for reminiscence’, but if we miss each other, that will be it.

He has a tight schedule: lunch with Richard Dawkins at Balliol, their old college, followed by a reception in the afternoon and a debate on atheism versus religion at the Sheldonian in the evening, then it’s home to Washington DC tomorrow and thence to Australia for a book tour.

When he appears, wearing a white suit and open-necked navy blue shirt, he is dragging a suitcase, or perhaps, given his slightly ruffled appearance, the suitcase is dragging him.

The look is that of the English gentleman abroad, but where exactly abroad for him is, these days is debatable.

A couple of years ago he took American citizenship, having lived there for a quarter of a century, and he still likes to fly off to war zones and ‘difficult countries’ to file dispatches and/or find inspiration for his polemical essays and books.

And as he reveals in his latest, a pert yet elegantly written memoir called Hitch-22, he has been roaming the globe, looking for trouble, all his life. But when you hear his voice, any doubts as to his true identity evaporate.

He speaks in a sonorous Oxford English, in sentences that are sometimes clipped (his father was a commander in the Royal Navy), sometimes florid. And something in his tone makes every word sound vaguely ironic.

We immediately seem to fall into pre-assigned roles: he the slightly unworldly senior don, me the amanuensis as he hands me some papers among which he suspects his ticket might be lurking.

I find it and slot it in the barrier, but, before he can get through, it closes on his suitcase and a tussle ensues. ‘A dignified start,’ he says, once freed by an inspector.

The Hitch, as he is known, does self-parody well. He plays up to the Hitch image a little – the cool, louche, tousle-haired, twice-married street fighter.

Rarely is he sighted in public without a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other. And according to his closest friend, Martin Amis, he ‘likes the smell of cordite’ and is always on the prowl for an argument.

‘Against the Hitch,’ Amis once wrote, ‘physical and intellectual opposition are equally futile.’ His favoured technique when debating is charm followed by the abrupt, flick-knife withdrawal of charm.

We settle in our seats on the train and take in the scenery as the suburbs turn to fields. He used to do this journey a lot, he says, not least because he stayed on in Oxford for a year after graduating.

‘My girlfriend was still doing her final year. I was looking for a job in London and, alas, I found one.’ It was with The Times Educational Supplement.

Getting fired six months later proved a good thing, leading as it did to a job on the New Statesman, where he joined a set that is now part of literary legend.

‘It’s funny,’ he says, ‘this thing about being in a set. We didn’t think it was at the time.’ Either way, the roll call was impressive, with Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and James Fenton among the names.

Every Friday they would gather for a lunch and, as Hitchens acknowledges in Hitch-22, it’s hard to convey the atmosphere because ‘you had to be there’.

Their favourite game was word replacement, so that, say, house became sock, as in Bleak Sock, The Sock of the Rising Sun and so on.

Those lunches, I suggest, must have been horribly competitive and self regarding.

‘Julian Barnes has described them as being “shouty”, but I don’t remember them like that. I don’t think I was competitive. Clive said a lovely thing about me once, which was that I was the cause of wit in others. I should have used it as a blurb.’ He slaps the table. ‘In fact, why the f— didn’t I?’

He gets to his feet and steadies himself against the motion of the train. ‘Come and look at this. I’ve always loved this part of the journey. In a few seconds we will glimpse Christ Church.’ We do, and, five minutes later, we are in his hotel.

As he’s checking in, he rather deftly dispatches me to the bar, a suggestion rather than an order, one made almost under his breath, as if he is talking to the concierge:

‘I imagine there’s time for a Johnnie Walker Black Label, no ice, Perrier on the side.’

We sit outside so as he can light up a Rothmans and, for the next 45 minutes or so, unless you hear otherwise, you must assume he is always lighting one up (that’s a line from a Martin Amis novel, by the way).

With the sound of woodpigeons and church bells in the background, I ask about his childhood stutter. It went away, but the idea that the ferociously fluent Hitch could have been vulnerable in this way is intriguing.

Are there any other insecurities we should know about?

‘Money. Never had enough growing up. And I’m full of self-loathing that I don’t speak another language well. And I would have liked to have run for a seat in Parliament. Think less of myself for not doing it.’

He draws on his cigarette. ‘I don’t have any terrific self-esteem issues but I do sometimes realise I’ve been too lucky and that I’m over praised. It makes me nervous. I have this sense of being overrated.’

A sip of Scotch. ‘Another insecurity is that I never like to lose an argument, even a domestic one. Even when it might not matter.’

Does that make him difficult to live with? ‘It must do. In fact, I know it does. It’s a vice.’ What’s wrong with losing an argument? ‘What a question! I would feel it was a defeat.’

Although he often uses humour as a weapon, he can turn nasty, go into flame-thrower mode. What happens to him in those moments? Is it the red mist?

‘It doesn’t take much to make me angry. Don’t care about getting it back in return. There are all kinds of stupid people that annoy me but what annoys me most is a lazy argument.

‘People being too easily pleased. I’m amazed they settle for so little. But a gentleman is someone who is never rude by accident.’

I once saw Hitchens in a television debate with the elderly Charlton Heston, arguing about the first Iraq war. At one point he snapped and told Heston to keep his hairpiece on.

Does he ever regret such personal attacks? ‘No, in a debate there’s no point in not doing it. I don’t regret that one because he f—ing asked for it. But if you worry you’ve gone too far it’s usually a sign that you have not gone far enough.’

Politically he considers himself an advocate of secular liberalism. Others describe him as a contrarian, a term he doesn’t much care for.

Either way, he was, and is, a formidable advocate of the war on Iraq and this has left him as something of a punch bag on the internet.

Not that he cares. He does feuds well, having had a public spat not long ago with the MP George Galloway, who memorably dismissed Hitchens as a ‘drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay’. (Hitchens only took exception to the suggestion that he couldn’t hold his liquor.)

He certainly doesn’t look like a hard drinker, although he does acknowledge that his looks have declined so much that now only women will go to bed with him. It’s a good line, one that alludes to the bisexuality of his youth.

In Hitch-22 he ‘claims’ two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. So, come on then, who were they? ‘I’m amazed no one has guessed. But no comment. And please don’t bother David Heathcoat-Amory.’

His memoir is selective, not least on the subject of his womanising. Even his former girlfriend Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of US Vogue, doesn’t get a look in.

Neither does his ex-wife, Eleni Meleagrou, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent in Cyprus, or indeed his current one, the Californian writer Carol Blue.

‘No, didn’t do any of that.’ Why not? ‘This might sound conceited, but if you were doing it properly there were quite a lot. And also you enrage people you leave out. If you leave everyone out then you are in the clear.’

As a youth he was a paid-up Trotskyite: the visit to Cuba, the manning of the picket lines, the selling of Socialist Worker on street corners.

When arrested after a sit-in, he sang The Internationale in the dock, fists raised in the approved defiant manner.

In retrospect, was he playing up to a romantic image of himself?

‘No, there was no role-playing. At Oxford there was a guy called Gyles Brandreth who set out to make himself into a Ken Tynan. Wore a cloak. Spoke at the Oxford Union.

‘Took his girlfriend up in a monoplane. I remember thinking, whatever happens, these are not going to be known as “the Brandreth years”. I shall make sure of that. Do you mind if I shade my eyes? They are light sensitive.’

He pops on his sunglasses. ‘You must tell me if I am being boring. You must be blunt with me.’ Fear of boring people, and people boring him, has been the driving force in his life, he reckons, and the reason for his drinking.

It’s also what makes him so readable, although it wasn’t until his last book that he enjoyed a commercial success.

What was it about God is Not Great that clicked with the reading public?

‘I think it was a desire to push back against theocratic bullying. The violence in the Bible is appalling. And written by people who were terrified a lot of the time and brutally, barbarically ignorant.’

He has three children; what if they get religious on him?

‘As Jeeves might say, the contingency is a remote one. I can’t claim any credit for this, but I think with all three of them their sense of the ridiculous would be too strong.’

Though he had long been an atheist, there were two episodes that galvanised him into his crusade against organised religion.

The first was the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie in 1989; the second was the attack on the twin towers.

As he watched the news coverage he ‘swore a sort of oath to remain coldly furious until these hateful forces had been brought to a most strict and merciless account’.

Has it brought out the worst in his former allies on the Left?

‘Yes, at the time of the fatwa I was appalled that anyone with a Marxist background could find any excuse for the Ayatollah. And after 9/11 I realised there was a modern Left accommodation with Islam.

‘People like Galloway, to name the creepiest of them, feel let down by the British working classes from an insurrection point of view, so then they say: “Ah, disaffected Muslim youth are the new revolutionary force”.’

It was Hitchens who came up with the term Islamofascist; has he had death threats from them? ‘Yes, and if you read their communiqués, so have you. It’s nothing special.’

The Commander, as his father was known to his sons, would gather the family together every Boxing Day to toast the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst, an action he had been part of.

To what extent has his life been a reaction against his father? After all, his father was taciturn, he is garrulous.

‘We could not have been less alike. My father was not much of a presence in my life when I was growing up. I saw him as a rather weak person, or too effaced by life.

When I moved to London he called me up to say he liked something I had written from the Lebanon, adding that he thought I had been brave to go there.

So unlike him. I did wonder after that whether by going to these dangerous places I was compensating in some way for not having had to fight in wars.’

What was he like as a father? Was he the Commander? ‘Abnormally no good at the childhood stage. I am always impressed by how women get a grip of things.’

His own mother lost her grip after her sons had left home. She had an affair with a defrocked priest, which ended in a suicide pact in Athens. Hitchens refers to it as a lacerating, howling moment in his life.

‘But I hope there’s no mawkishness in the book. When I read that chapter back to myself I wept, to my surprise, quite a lot. Not Little Nell tears either.

‘The worst bit, in a way, was knowing from the phone records that she had been trying to contact me, because I’m pretty sure I could have talked her out of it.’

He identified more with his mother than his father.

‘My brother is much more like my old man, though you can’t really describe Peter as taciturn.’ Indeed not. Peter Hitchens is also an award-winning author and journalist.

In public, the sibling rivalry between them has been on a grand scale – the Liam and Noel Gallagher of political thought, they have been called – but actually they are more alike than different.

Both extremely argumentative, both started out as Trotskyites. Now one is a right-wing Leftie, the other a left-wing Rightie.

They often disagree on politics, but their real difference is over religion, Peter being a devout Anglican. ‘Yes, that’s true enough,’ the Hitch says.

‘Fundamentally we find the same sorts of things and people repellent. But yes, apparently he has some conviction about the supernatural.

‘I find it very hard to work out exactly why, even after reading his new book, The Rage Against God. It is very nice. It purports to be a riposte to my lot and me. You must tell me when it’s time to go for lunch. I don’t have a watch.’

I check mine; it is time. We set off for Balliol and, on the way, he shows me where he first met the young Martin Amis.

He also shows me the cobbles which the university considered paving over in the late Sixties, lest they be dug up and employed as missiles, as had happened in Paris. Dawkins is waiting for him outside Balliol. Both are wearing sunglasses. The atheist mafia.

That evening, at the debate, I watch Hitchens as he waits to speak, rotating his foot at the ankle like a cat about to pounce. He soon gets the audience on side, making them laugh, then cheer. As Dr Johnson was said to do, so Hitchens does. He tosses and gores his opponent, a desiccated professor who never stood a chance.

As I watch him perform – for it is a performance – it occurs to me that the Hitch has just come from a dinner at which the wine flowed and, given that it is unlikely the Master of Balliol runs a dry ship, he must have been putting it away all day, since that first Scotch at noon, in fact. Yet he slurs not one word.

On my way home, I remember that he signed my copy of his book. I open it up and smile to myself: ‘Well met on the 10.50 to Oxford.’