David Platzer admires a revelatory series of interviews
No Longer With Us
By Naim Attallah,
Quartet, 823pp, £30/$33
It was Diana Mosley, as enchanting in her person as her politics were bewildering, who handed me Naim Attallah’s book of interviews, Singular Encounters, in 1991. Attallah was brilliant as an interviewer, she told me, praising particularly his “encounter” with William Rees-Mogg.
Many of the interviews featured in Singular Encounters are reprinted in this current book, together with others published in the Oldie, the magazine backed by Attallah in the 1990s. The selection features people, all of them now dead, who were eminent in arts, politics, business, the academy and the media. Sadly, interviews with Rees-Mogg and Auberon Waugh are not included. The absence of Rees-Mogg, who died in 2012 and who had interesting things to say about his Catholicism and the state of the Church since Vatican II, is curious in that his son, Jacob, is so much in the news.
The discussion about Catholicism with Rees-Mogg was typical in that Attallah often probed his subjects as to their feelings about religion in a way both delicate and incisive. Some of them describe themselves as immune to faith. The writer Sybille Bedford, raised nominally a Catholic and fearful of hell in her childhood, turned completely against Catholicism and, even more, the Church of England in later life. Lord Lambton sounded tormented on the subject, saying first that he wished he had “the faith of a good Catholic” and then launching into an anguished diatribe. “It is quite easy to believe in the Devil,” he said, “but if there is a God, what has he been doing?” For Lambton, the Christian religion is the only one which “portrays cruelty as a symbol”, a point Lambton’s friend, Diana Mosley, made to me. The touching Elizabeth Jane Howard admits to lacking faith, which she says resembles love in that “you can’t reason yourself into either of them”.
Catholics, whether born, like Harold Acton and William F Buckley Jr, or converts, like Rumer Godden, seem more serene. For Godden, who waited 16 years to become a Catholic because of her divorce, the Catholic Church was the only one “founded by Christ … the others … by men for expediency”.
James Lees-Milne converted to Catholicism in his youth only to return to Anglicanism because of the Vatican Council and the discarding of the liturgy that he loved. He tells us that he found going to Confession “distasteful”, apparently because of the implication that morals might be linked to God. For the young Lees-Milne, “the lusts of the flesh” drew him nearer to God – “almost a sort of union with God”. Lees-Milne describes himself as “a fervent believer” who “would have found it very difficult” to survive into extreme old age had he not believed in God.
Lees-Milne’s dismay at Vatican II was generally shared by those Catholics interviewed, even those who like Harold Acton proclaimed a “faith stronger than ever”.
“I can’t say I am deeply religious,” Acton says, “but I believe religion is essential to us and without it we lose our bearings.” Acton adds that he “was saddened by the abandonment of the Tridentine rite. The strength of the Church is in the old Tridentine.”
For William Buckley, Vatican II, though “a terrible mistake”, was “probably divinely instituted”. Buckley’s conversation with Attallah will prove revelatory for some of us. Buckley points out that nothing in Vatican II encouraged forsaking Mass in Latin. On the contrary, Vatican II stated that the Mass in Latin needed to be maintained – it was the bishops who were responsible for the change. Buckley also pointed out that Vatican II did not revoke the law against eating meat on Friday. Again, it was the clergy that took the law into their own hands.
Attallah’s interview with Harold Acton, who extols his friend Evelyn Waugh’s “heart of gold”, not always discerned by others, is worth the price of the book. Asked if he believed in sin, Acton playfully said he believed “rather than in weakness, though certain politicians make me believe … in sin”. But Churchill, “an outstanding person who also wrote well”, was an exception to this rule. Acton adds that Churchill “was a great draughtsman and he could also paint. Some of his earlier work will endure, I’m sure, but then he became experimental … Instead of clinging to his own natural talent for beautiful draughtsmanship and colour, Churchill … was led astray by the critics.”
Sir Winston’s fans will find Acton’s views on Churchill the painter more palatable than Diana Mosley’s comparison of Churchill to Hitler, a Mitford tease that annoyed some of her friends as well as her enemies.
While interviewing Diana, Attallah described an integrated Europe, Oswald Mosley’s dream after fascism collapsed, as “imminent” – something that now seems less than likely.
More probable is that one day industrious scholars will busy themselves in annotating a complete edition of Attallah’s interviews in several volumes. Until then, we can enjoy this treasure trove of a book.