My room at the foyer in Limoges is dedicated to François Mitterrand (1916-1996), President of France from 1981 to 1995 and a slippery old rogue if ever there was one. So I suppose it is appropriate that I should be living in a room named after him…
In the magnificent Limoges library, I came across a little-known biography of Daphne du Maurier, Manderley For Ever by Tatiana de Rosnay, in which I find I am mentioned as having interviewed Dame Daphne for BBC TV in 1971. Ms Rosnay describes me as ‘likeable but pompous’. Pompous? Moi? This is the gravest libel I have ever been subjected to in my 60 inglorious years as a journalist!
Ms Rosnay goes on to describe the interview as my ‘finest moment’ since my interviewing the late John Lennon. This is not true. Although I interviewed Lennon several times, I never considered him (or the other Beatles) of any great interest or importance.
A list of important or interesting writers I have interviewed over the years would include P G Wodehouse, John Betjeman and Terry Rattigan.
The only two famous writers who ever turned me down were Agatha Christie and Graham Greene. Christie wrote me a long letter explaining why she had no time for an interview; in the time she spent writing the letter I could have done one. Greene wrote me a one-line letter, saying he never gave interviews. (In 1959, I slept in his bed at his villa on the Isle of Capri – he wasn’t in it, I hasten to add.)
My interviewing principle is to allow two minutes for small talk (the weather, children) before getting down to it. It didn’t work with Ted Heath, the rudest man I’ve ever met. He bawled, ‘Come on in – what’s your first question?’ before I got through his door. He used the old trick of cutting our time down from 30 minutes to 15 to catch up on his diary.
Margaret Thatcher small-talked for an hour and then discovered that we had run out of time. She had to authorise, via her press secretary, another hour for serious political talk. (I didn’t agree with her politics, but I liked her as a person.)
She wrote personal notes to my two children, Emma and Charles, saying she had enjoyed meeting me. Emma, who later occupied Maggie’s old room in Somerville College, Oxford, has her letter to this day. Charles has probably lost his.
Still, writing three letters was a brilliant piece of public relations, as advocated by my old school pal Tim (Lord) Bell, who died in August.
George Brown, Harold Wilson’s Foreign Secretary, asked my secretary, Marie, who had very good legs, to leave the room during our talk because, he said, he found her miniskirted pins ‘distracting’.
Here, in the Limoges library, I have also come across magnificent coffee-table books devoted to Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. I have always thought Wilde somewhat overrated (Gyles Brandreth wouldn’t agree) but the French worship him.
As for Jane Austen, the French have, reluctantly, come round to the idea that there is a greater female writer than Colette!