Root Menu

Gary French

In conversation with Theodore Zeldin

At fifteen or sixteen I could have left school and joined Lloyd’s Bank, Punk is the reason I didn’t. I had no idea what I wanted to do but I was very good at Maths. Banking seemed like an obvious thing but I had no interest in it particularly. Sixteen is ridiculously young to be shutting yourself into a career that could last for the rest of your life. Without Punk, I would probably be working in that bank. We all need some catalyst at some point, which drives us in a particular direction. I could be the same person working in a bank, living a very different life to the one I am living now. I do get very frustrated with a lot of things including myself, but I think that frustration would probably be there but I wouldn’t be able to define it if I had gone down that line.

Punk Rock started in 1976, when I was fourteen, but it didn’t really kick in here. We were very rural and it took a while to get to Oxfordshire. The Sex Pistols and the Clash were the first to arrive. The premise of their lyrics was that we are all worth something, which was hard for working class people to believe in the 1970’s. They said that we could do anything we want to. I started to think that I could be more like that and I realised that the last thing I wanted to do was to go into banking.

Punk was everything. My world was small and it took me a long time to realise that people went to University, or traveled. I didn’t know that people could take a year out or travel around the world until I was in my mid-twenties. I had no idea that people did stuff like that. We weren’t particularly poor, my dad had a good job and my mum worked as well; there is just my brother and myself. We were very working class though. My father was a shop steward.

I was bright enough to have gone to what was then the Polytechnic, Oxford Brookes, but it wasn’t considered an option by anybody, my teachers, my parents or myself. It was never something that we were pushed into.

At around thirteen I started to get interested in politics, that led to Punk, which had by then been going for a while. It swept the nation for a couple of years.

I would willingly give up three years of my life and be three years older to have been around when Punk began. I was too young to have caught on to it and living here I was too far away from the centre. There was a scene in London and a little bit in Manchester but nothing in Oxford. We got linked into it when it had died a little bit. The ‘disaffected youth’ started forming bands; in terms of originality and musical talent they weren’t very good, but they were full of angst.

The band we followed were a band called Discharge who had a big influence on some Heavy Metal bands like Metallica, but they were very small. They played at absolutely ferocious speed and were completely anti-war, anti what they saw as the police state, almost completely anti the system, yet at the same time they worked as postmen and things like that. They were from Stoke, which is a horrible place. I saw parts of it when we went to visit them. Discharge were the second generation of Punk and different from the first lot, who, apart from the Sex Pistols, were generally very middle class arts students. Those bands had more ways of expressing themselves; some of them were just fantastic.

Punk bought a lot of music around but actually it came from a pub-rock scene, which was a lot of blues bands, Rhythm and blues bands that kind of had nowhere to go. There were a lot of Pomp Rock bands like Genesis and Yes and Rush and lots of God-awful bands like that, who were immensely popular. This R & B stuff, people would listen to it, but it wasn’t going anywhere, then when Punk came along the record companies were desperate to sign up anything that was different for a good two years. People like Elvis Costello came through in what was called the New Wave. It wasn’t Punk, but it wasn’t anything else, people like Ian Drury and Wilco Johnston.

The other night I went to see one of the bands that was big back then. I hadn’t been to see a Punk band for over twenty years. Most of the bands were very political and that message gets out of date. Also, you think why am I listening to these old men like the Rolling Stones?  They have nothing to offer.

A lot of the music back then was post-hippy. It was twenty-minute tracks burbling rubbish that had no relevance to us. Punk came along with two-minute tracks; it was hard-hitting. You could become a Punk band in ten minutes. Most of the lyrics were socially relevant

It wasn’t about playing an instrument at all. The more deconstructed you could be the better. One of my favourite bands was a group called Wire who were a very intelligent quartet of blokes who had all been to University in London. They are still going, they are almost performance artists in a sense. On two or three albums you can tell that they are holding back musically to make it as close to the edge as it can possibly be. A lot of the bands were completely talentless musically but could make a good tune or make a sound so raw that it was exciting. There were some bands who were more talented but deliberately kept the sound more raw and alive.

Why did Punk end? Well, the second-generation Punk bands would attract disaffected people from outside of the big cities where there is nothing much happening. Most of the people I know didn’t follow what would seem like a logical progression into left wing politics. Not just in terms of being interested in left wing politics but not even being left wing. Most of my Punk friends from the time are actually more likely to be right wing.

I suspect the drugs, sex, drinking, the energy of the music, the fact we were all on the dole, was at least as big, if not a bigger pull, than the message that the bands were actually giving out for the vast majority of people. This is something I really wish wasn’t the case, but I think Punk often meant more to the original middle class arts student scene than it did to us.

People made mistakes about Punk; we were no threat to society at all. The late seventies were weird times. The U.K. was trying to borrow money off the IMF in 1977. It was a bizarre scenario, the economy was close to collapse, the streets were full of rubbish, the Labour party was imploding and the country was falling apart. There must have been some kind of realisation that we were not a world power any more, that the empire was finished. 1977 was the classic year because it was the Queen’s jubilee, the Pistols bought out ‘God Save the Queen’ and the country was on its knees. The Jubilee was nothing like the fiftieth anniversary. There was this huge sense of ‘We are still a nation, the Queen is great; we are still a great power’ and we clearly weren’t.

There was a lot of resentment. In 1977 you didn’t expect to get a job. The class system, which I think is still here, was much more evident then. There was an open loathing of the working classes by the bosses. They hated the Unions and thus the working people who they represented. Punk was just a way, a physical way of expressing your disgust at what was around you. People loathed us, particularly here. When you followed bands up north people were much more friendly towards you. The public would come up to you and say, ‘Why do you stick your hair up?’ Down here, people hated the sight of you. The sensational tabloid press were full of lurid tales. They came to Oxford because there was quite a frightening scene in Oxford. They came to the drop in centre for the unemployed and were offering money to get us to make up sensational stories.

When Punk started I wouldn’t have said it was all politics, but then Thatcher got in. Thatcherism was like a leach, sucking the energy out of people for a long time. In retrospect, I look back and think that there are cycles in politics; that this will happen again. We will get an extreme rightwing government that everyone will go for big time. At the time, it felt like Labour had collapsed and were unelectable, full of infighting.

I grew up with some sort of interest in politics. My dad was a socialist and I grew up listening to a lot of Jazz because he was really into it. I read a lot about Jazz and started to learn about slavery and political issues. My dad was a huge influence on me because he was leftwing. He loathed Thatcher with a vengeance and transferred that to me. I must have got my politics through him, there was no one else to discuss politics with.

At that time society as I understood it, I didn’t like at all. I was happy to feel like I was outside that society.

I worked occasionally. We were in bands, usually very unsuccessfully, and went to a lot of gigs. I hung around with the people I grew up with in

Kidlington. Kidlington is a stifling place, it’s a vile, vile hole and it suffocated me. As soon as we could, we got out of there and came into Oxford. We met people from all over the place, more like the people I am working with now, very chaotic. A lot of them had come from Cardiff and areas that were much more working class than mine was. I felt quite comfortable with them

Last night I bumped into a mate that I listened to Punk records with when I was fourteen. He still lives in Kidlington and I bump into him about once every ten years. I introduced him to my two friends and he was telling them all these stories about the things we had been up to, in some ways they were untrue. He exaggerated to fit his memories of his teenage rebellion. At the time we seemed quite rebellious but we weren’t at all. I was quite scared. They weren’t great times, they weren’t the best times of my life, we weren’t rebellious, we just looked rebellious and people were scared of us. We were doing things that young people had done before and do now, which was to drink alcohol, take drugs, try to have sex and leave home.

I didn’t want to go to London. I don’t like it. It’s too big. I used to go to London every weekend, or nearly every weekend, to go to gigs or to hang around the King’s Road and buy records, things like that, but I was in Victoria one day and I started feeling overwhelmed by the buildings. I was a big fish in a small pond here and I knew that in London I’d feel like a very very small fish in an ocean.

As a fifteen year old, sitting there listening to adults talking stuff that I thought was rubbish, Punk gave me the power to think ‘Yeah, it could be.’ At some point, you need to be able to look at your parents and think ‘Well, that ain’t right, is it?’ Once you have done that, you can start to question everybody. Punk is the thing that made me sit there and think ‘That is wrong, they are talking rubbish.’

I used to believe that we could all change things in a practical way. I wasn’t necessarily naïve, but almost expectant. Two things that happened and changed my opinions are that the working classes kept voting Thatcher in. You start to realise that people think about themselves more than each other. People thought they would get richer and they did; never mind what was happening to the country. The second thing, which was a dire disappointment for me, is that my father went from being a real left-winger into almost becoming a Blairite. He is desperate to protect a vision of the country, which, as a shareholder, he is financially very much invested in.

We all change the world by being ourselves, the person we are in it but I think that the kind of world that I would like to live in has a very slim chance. That’s why I get so much out of the work that I do. The work that I do helps me to feel that I am working towards a more equal society. It gives me the ability to influence people who are not equal in society to feel that they are, at least on a personal level.

In this country we all realised that we could become quite well off and any threat to that well being brings out a fairly right wing response. The most obvious belief, and by far and away the most annoying to me, is that asylum seekers take up housing in Oxford. I know for a fact that they do not. It’s my job. I hear people saying ‘I can’t get on the housing list but these fucking asylum seekers come straight over here and they get put into housing right away.’ It is just rubbish. Generally speaking, the more people get, the less free they become. The more that they have got, the less likely they are to give; they want to protect it.

My parents started with very little and they’ve got a nice house. I find it ghastly. The house is detached and it’s got a big garden out back, a big garden at the front. To think where they came from that in one lifetime. They’ve got a brand new car that they can change over, they retired early, when my younger brother was eighteen or nineteen they started going all over the world. I don’t think that their parents ever went abroad. It’s been an amazing jump and they don’t want to give it up.

People are sad that they have lost the sense of community they had, they blame everyone else but they don’t see that they have detached themselves from society by having this detached house. My parents don’t have relations with their neighbours. They have lost security and a social existence for an insularity, which is based around comfort.

My dad’s not incredibly sociable but he would have known a lot of people through work. Now he moans about societies standards, and as he is hardly in society, I think that it’s a bit rich. Society for him comes out of the television or the radio. He doesn’t know anything about society in terms of real practice. He goes to a pub once a week and meets people there, but that is it.

My job at the Shelter helps me to feel like part of the community. My last post was at Acorn, a great job in a mental health day centre, I felt it was a privilege to work there and learned a lot from my colleagues, who were all very middle class. I yearned for the rawer edge and the reality of things. There would be some people from the street and the staff would say ‘They are so hard to work with’ but I would think ‘No, this is great; this is what we are meant to be doing. This is real life.’

 

There is also what is horrendously called the ‘worried well’, people that on the surface don’t have anything to worry about but who are very anxious and depressed. I like to work with the more chaotic people and the more deprived and underprivileged their background, the more I can relate to them.

We have so many complex levels, all of us socially and so on, but when you get someone like that you can just strip the bullshit away and build from the bottom up.When you are with someone down and out, it seems easier to get to the truth. You can say ‘Just cut the crap and tell me what the score is.’ It feels more real. It feels like they are more naked and it feels like there is less reason to hide behind stuff.

I try to make the people I work with feel equal with me – because they are. This is a prejudice but no one working class ever went to counsellors. Sit there in a room talking to someone in a tweed suit? You’ve got to be joking! Frankly, having met some of them, I am not surprised. I’m not knocking counselling, which fascinates me, but I was always trying to push more for counsellors with working class backgrounds.

One of the nicest things I see is very well heeled people, mainly women, talk to people on the street and having a nice conversation with them. I know that the people appreciate it. I don’t think prosperity is necessarily a barrier. I know lots of working class people who hate the homeless.

If you are homeless, you smell, you are dishevelled, you have a drug habit, you are going to have to have incredible depth and self-confidence to believe that you are equal to the society around you that values everything that you are not. I know at least one person like that. He’s interested in philosophy, particularly Strawson. He’s been abused and beaten up on the street regularly and he used to be a social worker. He just refuses to give in and celebrates his own schizophrenia. He must have massive depths, depths I could only dream of under his circumstances.

Little things can help change things for people for a small amount of time. I’m sure that when a homeless person is sat there talking to someone who treats him or her as an equal, for that period they are equal. But when that person walks away and somebody walks past and ignores them, or sneers at them, or spits on them, or hits them, then that feeling goes. If society was more tolerant of individuality and if people could be recognised as having value, then that’s how things will change. It’s not just about prejudice.

I imagine that if you do meet someone that believes in you, that that must go into some bank in your consciousness. I don’t believe that my intervention is enough to get across the extreme barriers that people are faced with - that would be extremely egotistical.

We’ve recently started up an art group at the shelter. I was really pushing to do it because it’s a way of helping people to express themselves. You could tell that a lot of people at the shelter didn’t think it would work because they are so used to seeing people unable to express themselves and being seen only in a negative context. And of course, it has turned out to be a great success. People are expressing themselves, they are working at something and their self-confidence must rise a little bit, at least when they are doing it. They can get things out of their system – which might make them feel very sad, but it is a good positive thing. There is a feeling of equality.

I am constantly fighting giving is that we should get homeless people back into normal society. I don’t think normal society is very healthy anyway. People are increasingly working out that the things we want so much won’t bring us an ounce of happiness.

I do myself have enormously complicated issues and have a great deal of difficult maintaining my own stable mental health and things like that, but at the same time, I think I am quite accepting of myself and not many people are. Equality is the key for me I think. We all do seem to want to be something else. How can you have any feelings of inner satisfaction or relaxation if you want to be someone else all of the time?

While I accept myself, I am constantly questioning what I do and the validity of it, why I do it. I look back on what I did in the past and try and work out why I did it, if I would do the same again. But I accept that I make mistakes and am willing to try and learn from them and that’s ok. I accept the fact that I don’t live up to my high moral and ethical standards but that I try too. I won’t give myself a hard time but I will sit there and think about it. Sit there and think that while I may say something good, I have committed this action, and how does that fit with what I said?

 

On Sunday I sat there talking to my friends and starting thinking something like, if you could go back and change everything, I feel that you would inevitably get to the same spot where you could change everything. We are the people that we are, and as much as we would like to think that we could change dramatically, I just don’t think we can. Maybe it is because I feel relatively settled and happy where I am that I find it very difficult and complex to believe that I could fully change. I’m content with who I am.

I’ve got no property, no pensions and it does make me feel insecure, especially around Christmas and Easter. At Christmas you look into some house and it is like looking into the telly and thinking I wish I was there. You look into someone’s house and the lighting is nice, there is a nice Christmas tree and plenty of presents under it, young kids in there. I was married, my wife died – although we were separated by then. At one point I was quite happy to go down that road but it is not something I necessarily need. At those times it really gets you and you think ‘That is what I should be doing’ and it really gets you that you aren’t. It’s an illusion though, because in the back room the two main players in that relationship are beating the crap out of each other or something, or are very stressed out because it is Christmas, but you don’t see that.

People want to think that, need to think that other people are doing better because that is something that they can try to achieve.

Everything about popular culture says ‘Look at you! You should look like this, or buy that. Look at all these fabulous people. Look at all this money. Look at your boring life.’ I know so many people that are sucked into that but my reaction is the opposite. I sit there and look at these people and think ‘I so wouldn’t want to be you. I so wouldn’t want to have what you have got.’ It has taken a lot of years and a lot of self-will and a lot of belief. What I’ve got isn’t that much either, but it is enough for me.

My work has helped me to realise that the confidence to make decisions comes from the ability to say ‘I got that wrong, but it is ok’. In the kind of work we do, that is fine. A decision could have big effects but we are individuals working with individuals, so how can you always make the right decision? If you work in a bank, there is a right way to add money up and a wrong way but working with people, how can you expect to get it right? You can seem to fail thirty or forty times with someone but you keep going and eventually something might change.

It can be quite trying for people to doing that kind of work. It isn’t just the failure and success rate but you have to face up to yourself. You don’t have to do that in a lot of jobs, in fact, you don’t have to do that in society. We can get through our lives without really taking a great deal of responsibility for ourselves. We can let society take nearly all responsibility. Look at the swing in public opinion over the war. There has been no real change in the arguments made; a lot of the evidence has been exposed as being a complete sham. Yet as the war has gone on and been successful in a lot of people’s perspectives, there has been a swing in favour of war. It was a clear moral and ethical question in the first place and it seems that either decision would hold some validity, but swinging back and forth holds none at all. The arguments haven’t changed. People don’t like to take responsibility and other people are taking the decisions, so they react to the way things are going. There is a lot of that.

I feel personally responsible for those kinds of things because although I don’t believe that I can change them, they are being enacted in my name. It is quite important that I have thought about them and at least understand how I feel about the issues myself.

We exploited Iraq for a very long time. I feel responsible in that way but I refuse to feel guilty about the war. I cannot believe that it would have happened if I have more control over matters. Politics makes me feel really sad. I know several people who are older than me and have been involved in politics for a long time. They told me, ‘You want to watch yourself because you have let it affect you so much.’ It really gets on top of you. Two of these people had acute mental health problems. They put some of them down to the fact that you can care too much.

 

Last year, when my ex-wife died, I was having real problems. I had to stop thinking.

I’ve got many foibles. I’m as interested in convenience as any body else and am lazy like that, but there are certain places that I won’t go to and I get angry with people I know. I know this one man who recently got an OBE, he works for Oxfam and campaigns for Fair-trade but he buys Nescafe coffee. I subvertise Nescafe adverts. But I love bananas and I can be in a shop and go and buy loads of bananas when I could have bought Fair-trade ones somewhere else. I try not to give myself a hard time but just to try and change myself slowly in terms of my shopping.

Things like the Comic Relief movement fascinate me. Comic Relief is so interesting. I got really involved in the first one. There is a general desire for people to feel that they are part of the world and that they are not exploiting but rather doing good. But it needs heartrending images, vile soppy music and appalling comedy to drag it out of people. People reach for their credit cards and they make this donation and everything is all right.

 

I wonder at a society that can have so much of an impact on the rest of the world and thinks it can assuage itself by making a fifty pound donation every two years or so. I mean that as a mass thing. We buy into the idea that we are a caring nation. We care about people who have had their legs blown off ten thousand miles away, but we don’t bring the fuckers over here. We don’t care that much.

I have arrived at a situation where unless my life changes or is overturned, I will end up going to another country and working with people who are really massively underprivileged. I’d like to.

I find it difficult to maintain compassion. I don’t mean for the homeless and stuff, I mean compassion for the middle classes or my parents – for the ruling classes. The politicians and people who do have to make difficult decisions and do difficult things and whom I often loathe. I have to fight through my own prejudices against and about them. Compassion is very easy for the homeless or for societies undervalued or discriminated against. It is not that easy for someone living in a half a million pound house with a range rover and a swimming pool out back who has a shitty life. It is easy for me to be very cynical about people like that, who might be doing good things or want to do good things; who want to be good people and find it difficult to do it. Those people with the credit card out for Comic Relief – I can be very bitter about that, but it probably says more about me than it does about them.

With a discussion like this, I am inevitably going to end up talking about equality. It feels like the central theme to my life. Since I’ve done the work with mental health and realised that we are becoming a sicker world, or at least people are realising that they are sick. I am sure that there is a linkage between modern living, the expectations of people, and mental illness.

Mild depression is becoming very common. The World Health Organisation has done studies on groups from certain parts of the world, for example from Mexico and found that where earning potential had shot up, mental health has collapsed. In Mexico people will be part of something, they won’t be looked down upon. They then move to America and become invisible and become depressed.

Apart from genetic influences and having bad experiences happen to you, I think a lot of mental illness comes from not having any self-worth. Equality isn’t about a financial scenario. There are always going to be people who have more drive to have things, to work harder, to succeed than others. That has to be recognised in some way or society probably wouldn’t work very well. But it seems that society wants to perpetuate the myth that that is where we should all be heading. The vast majority of people will never get there. You can’t be equal if you don’t believe that you are equal.

I have more women friends than anyone else I know of my sex. I think that is a positive thing. I’ve had women bosses and worked in very matriarchal organizations, which hasn’t bothered me. It has been interesting.

I expect more from a female friend that I do from a male one because I get something different from a female friendship. I don’t concentrate quite so much on the depth of a male personality.

I find that I am probably more comfortable talking to a bloke I don’t really know than, say, to his partner on an initial introduction. But I usually think I would be more interested talking to the woman. I prefer spending time with women on a more intimate level of friendship.    

My friend has an interesting article in his toilet; it’s about the ‘Good Wife’ and from Good Housekeeping 1955. It helps me to understand where my parents come from since my mum must have been eighteen at that point. You read about what the good wife does and it is absolutely staggering. At the end it says ‘A good wife always knows her place.’ The only thing that seems positive in the whole article is that the wife should go and have a fifteen-minute lie down before the husband returns. You think at least she gets a bit of rest, and then it explains ‘so the wife looks good when the husband gets in.’ I think our society is still a lot like that. We don’t really take women seriously. I’ve been bought up in that society, so it does have an impact on me.

I love spending time with a big group of male friends that I have had for a long time. This is a totally different relationship but something I feel very comfortable with. I have a group of male friends that I have had for nearly twenty years. We moved around a little but all stayed around this area. We used to go on holiday to Scotland together. I’ve had those friends for years and I cannot for the life of me imagine that I won’t have them until the day I die. We’ve gone through so much and been so close, physically and geographically. We are still all exactly the same and there is a different level of friendship there that it is hard to contemplate having with women.

There is a kind of physicality about my male friendships. I do have one regret in life; that I wasn’t like this years ago when I was married to Clair. She was more open but I was completely unable to be like that. I didn’t know it was there. I don’t know that it would have made a difference but I think things would have been better.

When my wife died, she was from Ireland so the family came over. There were three groups that carried the coffin. One group was all her brothers, and one group was left to me to organize. I asked four of my best friends with my dad and me. I got more support and comfort from those five people and another one of our friends, Johnny, who was too short to carry the coffin because the rest of us are so tall. I got a lot more support and comfort from them than I did from my main female friends and I don’t just mean on the day but generally speaking.

Finding their depths was just fabulous. I think the men had gone through all this together and it’s not that we were sitting there having long conversations although I think they were able to express themselves. Now the person I grieve with most is a woman. Often when we talk about Clair I find myself getting very emotional. She can hold it in a way and it expresses her grief as well.

With most of my female friends I think at some time over a long friendship there have been times when I thought that the feelings might have been slightly different. That makes it more complex and makes it harder to feel completely equal. I don’t feel particularly brilliant at reading that kind of stuff at all. With male friendships that issue doesn’t get in the way. My brother is homosexual, but my close male friends are all heterosexual so there isn’t any tension.

I don’t have children, which is a mixed blessing. My wife and I planned to have children. She came from a mammoth family. We planned to have two, because that was ethical and that drove her nuts. Twice we thought she was pregnant and she wasn’t – which we were relieved about at the time. I couldn’t begin to answer a question about whether in retrospect that was a good thing or a bad thing. I love children so much.

A couple of years ago I went to protest at the World Economic Forum in New York. I thought it was going to be horrendous but it turned out to be a real toothless affair. Someone was asking me why I was going and I said, ‘If you are an Afghani woman, you can rebel. Adults can make decisions; those women risk their lives to rebel against this vile autocratic male-dominated society. They’ve got that choice but children have no choice. They get forced into things.’

My friends’ kids are a real joy but I sit and think, if I have children, they will have children, and what the world is going to be like in practical terms in fifty or sixty years… The things we are doing to the world, economic and environmental wars, and the environment in general leads me to believe that the world will be a much more dangerous place in fifty years than it has ever been. That would weigh on my mind - it sounds as crass as the ‘Not In My Name’ posters but it does worry me.

My friend who has just had her first child had to fill out a form to say whether her pregnancy was planned. She said ‘unplanned but happy’. That’s how I would feel about being a father. You must be happy about having children; it’s got to be just such a tremendous joy.

I think things can be changed, not because of Blair or Bush or whoever heads Nestle or people like that, but because of people like me. Power does rest in the hands of the many but I don’t believe we want to take it. We don’t want that responsibility. I don’t believe that people really want the same things that I do.

My dad is a socialist but socialism was a movement in this country of people who were fighting for better wages for themselves and improving their lot and occasionally supporting each other through the Unions. Some people did go out to Spain and give their lives, but generally most socialism was about improving our own lot. We did get more but the state of the world is appalling. Socialism should be about improving the lot of everybody, the poor and oppressed people around the world. It shouldn’t just be that you are ok so suddenly you can forget about other people.

Something that has deeply influenced my attitude to the church is the way that they have used the promise of a better life to exploit people. It’s the idea of consolation for having a horrible life now. I went round Rome and just walking into the smaller churches you notice the fabulous fresco around the walls and the roof. In the medieval and renaissance times people would live in complete squalor but then they would come into these churches and look up. The brightness of those colours compared to the misery of their lives would have been so obvious.

A lot of vulnerable people end up in the church. They might be targeted and I think vulnerability is why they end up believing. I certainly believe that some churches target vulnerable people, in fact I know it happens here in Oxford, and with whole groups of churches too. I can imagine a very positive argument that they would use about giving people self-worth, about how we are all worth the same in the eyes of God.

 

I have always been interested in St Francis. I married a Catholic and had to go to church and take it fairly seriously. I went to see the Franciscans, having read a biography of St. Francis. Even in his own lifetime his followers wanted to set up great libraries even though he was preaching that everything should be given away. It fascinates me. I talked to Father Pascoe, who is a lovely man and a great guy, but he has a car and a housekeeper. He said ‘If I have a car then it gets me around to see more people,’ but I was saying, ‘But the message is so polluted.’ We had a nice chat about it and I believed in him, believed that he was a good man and he had intellectual superiority in the argument, but I thought, ‘It means nothing to me.’

St Francis is so famous and such an inspiration, but how many people really take his message to heart? Even at the time he was alive and all that power and energy was visible, people couldn’t stick with that simplicity. I don’t know much about Ghandi, only the general stuff, but there is strength in people that lives on. Ghandi will live on for longer than Nehru but I guess is was Nehru who really modernised the country.

 

One thing I do want is to remain open-minded and learn. I have started going to this philosophy class, which has been an immense thing. I read a book by a French philosopher of morals and ethics that really interested me. It took me a year to read it.

Before, all I knew about philosophy was that Plato and Aristotle were very famous and Greek. I had read Alain de Botton’s book; Epicurus really interested me, and also the stuff on Montaigne. I then got this book that, at least by the cover, looked like popular philosophy. The book is Andre Compte’s ‘A Short Treatise on Morals’. It is written exceedingly plainly but the ideas in it are very hard for me to condense or take in. I tend to only read a few pages at a time but I enjoyed it immensely. It was the first book I have ever made notes on. I think it had quite an impact on me. It made me confront things about myself.

I read the book in a year where I traveled a lot. I went to India for a month. The book starts by explaining what politeness is and then goes through all of the virtues. I read up to love. Most of the chapters were fifteen to twenty pages and I could read most of those in two sit-downs, but love was eighty pages. I was looking forward to it but during this period I went to India, came back and finished at Acorn so I could spend some time with Clair because I knew she was dying. I couldn’t read it around then or afterwards. It took me a long time.

Just around then I saw the adverts for the Oxford School of Science, Economics and Philosophy. I thought I am going to do this, but didn’t have the time then because Clair was still alive. I enrolled on the next course. For the first couple of lessons I really fought against it. It really antagonised me, but then the class became very small and I became very engaged. It started to have a very positive effect on my well being.

The class was a chance to talk about things with very different people. The class graduated down from fifteen to five very different people. I have a lot of experience with groups at work and I don’t think that the others, or even the teacher has. So they are still learning. It was good to talk about that kind of stuff and examine these ideas with complete strangers. The basis of the introductory course is the things we’ve been talking about: equality, beauty. I had to restrain myself at first because the teacher said to question everything, so I would. I had to remember that this was the beginning class and we were all at very different levels in terms of insight. I loved it though. I have no real inclination to be friends with these people outside of the group, but we have a really nice bond between us.

Three of the five people are very very well-heeled and they spoke so beautifully. In the second session I said ‘what I don’t fucking get…’ and there was a gasp around the room. I thought ‘oh well’, but they spoke so beautifully and I can’t speak like that, I can’t express myself like these people can. I know that I can express myself, but they used words so well and had such a large vocabulary. They could quote poetry, they could keep the quotes in their minds and I can’t. I found it quite frustrating. I realised that language can make you powerless.

I am reading Noam Chomsky; he is an expert on linguistics and I still can’t understand his writing. I have a deep feeling of bonding with what he says, but if you asked me to explain it to someone else I would be lost. He’s really leftwing and he really means what he says and his hearts in the right place and he knows what is going on – that’s about all I can say.

I love thinking about things. I love the childishness of questioning things, asking ‘Why?’ ‘Why this?’ ‘No, but why?’ It’s been good to see the impact of this on the group, on people I respect. You can see people coming together with the ideas. It has been a big challenge for me. Just to think about beauty has made me look at the world in a different way. It’s made me realise that it is very difficult to hold on to beauty. It has also made me realise that I spend so much of my life linking the past to the future and not much time in the present.

I wanted to surrender some of my self criticism and be easier on myself, to be more accepting of the way things feel. I love art and am very open to it. I accept my own perspective and get a huge amount of joy from that. Ultimately, I just like philosophy. It is mental exercise. I haven’t had a particularly restful period in my personal life for quite a few years. The philosophy feels quite restful.

I am very anti new age stuff. One of my friends went to New Zealand and I went out to meet her. All of her mates kept saying ‘It’s all in the hands of the Universe’ and I kept saying ‘Yeah right! Your lives are in such a mess but everything is in the hands of the universe’. After two or three weeks we got this little book, which looked like a self-help book. It has all sorts of passages to help you through your life. I haven’t looked at it.

Two of my friends recently joined Weight Watchers, which is the same company that makes all the fatty foods. They tell you to feel bad about yourself but then to eat all of this stuff. I find it deeply disturbing.

Making life go quicker is something I think about. My Nan died last year, which was not too emotional because she was eighty-two. She did smoke sixty fags a day since she was sixteen and had to stop drinking Barley Wine at thirty-seven because she was going to collapse. She led a riotous life in Portsmouth, much to my mother’s disapproval. My mother is a nice woman, but quite puritanical whereas my Nan was just a hell-raiser. My Nan was always terrified of death and convinced that she was going to get cancer and then she just died. She kind of lost interest in life; lost her independence quite rapidly and she had been a very independent woman.

When Clair died, she wasn’t so much scared of death as the physical thing of dying. She was thirty-three. She knew for three years that she was going to die. I knew for three years. I think sometimes she managed to convince herself that she wasn’t but she did know. I think if you fear death then hopefully you don’t try to fill life up with so many mundane things. There are so many wonderful things about life that it does seem silly thinking about mundane things the whole time. You can think about life in a deep way but you can also just go out everyday and notice how wonderful the blossom is and the ripples as the river catches the light. You can see wonderful things and really appreciate life at the time. To do that you have to feel fairly comfortable with yourself and perhaps come to terms with your own mortality because you have to appreciate that it isn’t going to be there.

I’m sure that God will survive. I go to Catholic churches and pray for Clair and I can do that quite easily because I can suspend my own disbelief around the faith of other people. I’ve found that I wanted to believe, certainly for the first few months after Claire’s death. I found I believed in God’s existence in a way that if you believed truly, something would happen but if you don’t really believe then nothing would ever be there. I was at the point where you could go one way or the other.

 

I love life and I feel really optimistic about it, the good and the bad things. I try hard to be good – that sounds really crap, but I try hard to be good and to think about what I do. I try not to exploit other people. I have no problem in defining my own moral standards and I don’t need the boundaries that other people provide.

Through Clair I know Marcus Braybrook, who is the leader of Interfaith Organisation. I heard about him and he sounded like a really nice guy before I met him. The day I met him it was the time of the Afghan war, he had been with Prince Abdullah of Jordan and Tony Blair. He knows the Delai Lama really well…He’s collated a lot of books. And in walked this bloke with this wild white hair, in his cassock, and he just looked like some bumbling idiot out of Dad’s army. He is a completely lovely, calm, peaceful person, who just seems totally accepting of everybody, which you have to be in an interfaith church. He has this church in Nuneham Courtney, which is complete middle England, and he has posters in it advertising solidarity with the Cuban workers. His wife is all tweedy and posh. We were talking and she said something about ‘that fucking idiot Blair’ and just went raging on about what idiots the Labour party are.

 

Judging people is something I’ve really had to come to terms with.

Many people in my life have said that I think too much.

 

I just talked to someone I know who has had a dreadful life. She’s a traveller and probably going to die quite soon. She said ‘If only we could have our time again,’ and I said ‘It would be just the same, wouldn’t it?’ and she started laughing.

Six months later…

The first time I read my biography, some months after the hugely enjoyable and exhausting interview, I was taken aback by how I perceived myself. It was not an inaccurate portrait or unbalanced due to an emotional state I found myself in at the time. I felt myself hugely moved by it, perhaps because we, or should I say ‘I’, so rarely examine ourselves that it can be shocking when presented with the evidence of such an opportunity, and doubtless this was part of my reaction. More so, however, was the discovery of just how much I had changed in such a short space of time, for the better, for the worse, who can judge – and I’m not sure I care. Perhaps if I wrote my biography today if would clearly show the same man, I think it would, but it would show a different man at the same time, another skin shed. All knowledge belongs to us, and we make of it what we will, no two definitions, understandings, could ever be exactly the same, and maybe we do change all the time - that would be my optimistic outlook - that although we resist change, somewhere inside us unknowingly we relish and embrace it.