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‘‘There may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns’’

Reporting of the conflict in Darfur in the western media reproduces the spurious ethnic categories o

I first went to Sudan in 2003, the year that the insurgency began in the Darfur region of the country. Very quickly, I began to notice something distinctive in the way the western press reported the conflict in the province. I had written a book on the genocide in Rwanda, and academic papers on the conflicts
in eastern Congo and Angola. The global media had treated those events as if they had unfolded in the dark of the night. But not Darfur. Darfur was globalised from the outset and was made the subject of a media blitz.

There was an obvious reason for this. Darfur – unlike Congo, Angola and Rwanda – was the focus of a political campaign in the United States, the Save Darfur movement. But one of the effects of its becoming a domestic issue in the US was a series of distortions of the historical record.

The first concerned just how many people had actually died in Darfur at the height of the conflict in 2003-2004. This is the question that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an audit agency of the US government, asked in 2006. The GAO got together with the US Academy of Sciences and asked a panel of 12 experts to assess the reliability of six different mortality estimates – from a high of roughly 400,000, from researchers linked to Save Darfur, to a low of between 50,000 and 70,000 by the World Health Organisation. The experts were unanimous that the high-level estimates were the least reliable and the lower figures generally more reliable. A broad consensus identified a WHO-connected research unit in Europe, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), as the source of the most reliable estimate: 118,142.

The GAO report was sent to the US state department, which endorsed the findings. It then made its way to Congress and on to the GAO’s website. But the public availability of this in­formation had little effect on media reports of mortality rates in Darfur. Nor did it affect or temper in any way the claims made by Save Darfur, relayed in full-page ads in the New York Times and on subway and bus posters, that more than 400,000 people had died in Darfur, and that “the genocide [was] continuing”.

Then there was the question of how people were dying. The media rarely acknowledged that the number of dead in Darfur was not the same as the number killed. This is because there were at least two main causes of death: drought and desertification, on the one hand, and direct violence, on the other. The WHO attributed between 70 and 80 per cent of the deaths to the effects of drought and desertification, mainly infants and children who had died from diarrhoea and dysentery. Between 20 and 30 per cent was ascribed to direct violence.

Anyone who does research on mass mortality knows that there is not an impermeable wall between violence and disease. How many who died from disease could have been saved in the absence of violence? The CRED report talked of 120,000 “excess deaths”. “We estimate,” it read, “the number of violence-related deaths to be plus/minus 35,000.” The report further said that the “‘excess deaths’ can be attributed to violence, diseases and malnutrition because of the conflict during this period”.

Should all the deaths have been attributed to “the conflict during this period”, then? What about the drought and desertification which had preceded the conflict and would most likely outlast it? There was clearly a large margin of uncertainty, though you would never have guessed it from most media reports.

More recently, western outlets have taken to reporting figures from a 2008 speech by John Holmes, under-secretary for humanitarian affairs at the UN. Holmes gave a global figure of 300,000 civilian dead in Darfur since the insurgency began in 2003, which most media repeat without comment. His speech contained two qualifications, both of which have been largely ignored. First, he said that 200,000 had died in Darfur in 2003-2004 from “combined causes”. This could only be a reference, however oblique, to drought and desertification, besides violence. But where did he get the figure of 200,000, as opposed to the 120,000 from CRED? Second, Holmes said that another 100,000 must have died since, “assuming the same trend”. But why assume “the same trend” when ground-level UN reports suggested the opposite?

Darfur Timeline

1899 English and Egyptian forces agree to joint dominion over Sudan. In the following decades, closed districts are established and travel from north to south is restricted

1953-54 A British census deepens the divide, categorising the Sudanese as “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives

1956 Sudan shrugs off British colonisation and declares independence

1987-89 Civil war erupts in Darfur as nomads and peasant tribes fight over fertile land

2002 Sudanese government and southern rebels sign ceasefire agreement

2003 Rebels in western Darfur claim neglect by the government and launch attack

2004 UN accuses Sudanese government of extensive human rights violations

2005 Power-sharing administration established in Khartoum but fighting continues

2009 International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for President Bashir (pictured). War trials get under way

Research by Tara Graham

Reporters such as Julie Flint of the Independent who have spoken to UN ground staff in Darfur have reported on a sharp decline in mortality, to levels lower than 200 a month, from January 2005. In April, the UN Security Council received a report from the secretary general’s envoy to Sudan that deaths from violence in Darfur between January 2008 and April 2009 had averaged fewer than 150 a month; this was a “low-intensity conflict”, therefore, and no longer an emergency.

The media have also shown little interest in the historical roots of the conflict. Anyone who has worked in or on Darfur would know that the violence there unfolded in distinct phases, starting with the civil war in 1987-89. Darfuris talk of conflicts prior to 1987 as being mainly localised, arising principally from boundary disputes that were easily resolved at tribunals which agreed compensation for injury.

However, something changed in 1987: the civil war which began that year spread throughout Darfur, and was waged with unparalleled and unprecedented brutality. There were several reasons for this mutation in the nature and scope of the violence. The parcelling up of territory into tribal homelands by the British in the early 20th century into unequal areas of land – which favoured settled tribes and left the camel nomads of northern Darfur without a homeland – was exacerbated by drought and desertification. According to United Nations Education Programme studies, the southern rim of the Sahara expanded nearly 100 kilometres over four decades. The effect of this was to push the northern nomadic tribes southwards in search of better land. The result was an ecological struggle between nomads and peasants over the most productive land. Whoever controlled that land would survive.

The civil war in Chad that began with independence in the 1960s was also a factor. Chad subsequently became a theatre in the Cold War after President Reagan declared Libya a terrorist state in 1981, with the US, France and Israel lining up on one side, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union on the other. With the government in control of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, the opposition crossed the border into Darfur, from where it mobilised, retrained, rearmed and launched attacks. This meant when the civil war in Darfur began in 1987, there may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns.

For a year, I was a consultant for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, a unit created by the African Union after the 2004 Abuja ceasefire negotiations. The DDDC carried out some research on the dynamics of the conflict. Its findings showed that the violence had spread over two axes: a north-south axis that pitted nomadic against peasant tribes, and an east-west axis, in the south, that led to two kinds of nomadic tribes – those with homelands and those without – confronting one another.

But Save Darfur, and the media in thrall, focused exclusively on the north-south axis, thus creating a further distortion – that this was a conflict between “Arab” and “African” tribes. In truth, the driving force of the conflict was not ethnic identity, but a search for land in an ecolo­gical crisis. Whoever controlled the land would survive the crisis; the losers would perish.

The racial categorisation of the population of Sudan as “Arab” and “African”, and the historical narrative according to which Arab settlers established mastery over African natives, began in the writing of British colonialists – from Winston Churchill’s journalistic The River War to the administrator-historian Harold MacMichael’s A History of the Arabs in the Sudan. This tradition lives on in the work of Sudanese nationalist historians of the post-independence period, as well as British academics. However, elements of a counter-history can be found in work done by American and British historians and anthropologists on specific locales (the sultanate of the Funj, for instance, or the Baggara of southern Darfur), and also that of Sudanese folklorists, whose focus was the tribal preoccupation with genealogies. What emerges from these alternative sources is that there was no “Arab” invasion of Sudan, and that there is no single history of the Arab presence in Sudan. There is hardly any connection, for instance, between the “Arabs” of riverine Sudan and those of Darfur. Indeed, if the former are associated with privilege and power, the latter are the most wretched of the Darfuri population.

The census carried out by the British colonial power in Sudan in 1953-54 divided the population between “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives. It had three further categories: tribes, groups of tribes (referring to language groups) and races. Whereas in Rwanda, the basic category of colonial policy had been race, in Sudan – and Darfur – it was tribe. Race did not become an operative classification in Darfur until the civil war of 1987-89. This would later have a significant influence on media reporting of the insurgency and counter-insurgency that began in 2003.

For those trying to think how to resolve any seemingly intractable conflict, there are two paradigms available. The first is the Nuremberg paradigm, underpinned by two main assumptions: first, that justice will follow the emergence of a clear victor in the conflict, and would be administered as a form of victor’s justice; second, that yesterday’s perpetrators and victims should not have to face the challenge of living together in the same country – the survivors should instead acquire a new political identity in a separate state, as was the case with the creation of the state of Israel. There is an alternative, however, based on the recognition that neither of these assumptions holds for most conflicts in Africa. Without a separate state for yesterday’s victims, all must learn to live as survivors.

The attempted transition from apartheid is a good example. How do you convince adversaries that it is in their interest to stop fighting? The answer at the Kempton Park negotiations to end apartheid was clear: you don’t do it by prioritising criminal justice – threatening to take perpetrators to court – because the very people you would take to court are those you will have to rely on to keep the peace.

Kempton Park thus distinguished between political justice and criminal justice, and prioritised political justice for groups over criminal justice for individuals. The decision was taken not to put the leaders of apartheid on trial. The trade-off was a pardon for individual leaders in return for their agreement to a change of rules, a political reform that would give a second chance to the living. This was not victors’ justice, but what one might call survivors’ justice.

The South African experience is not an exception. The civil war in Mozambique, in which the Pretoria-funded Renamo resistance specialised in turning kidnapped children into victim-perpetrators, ended in much the same way. Renamo’s leaders now sit in parliament, not in court or jail. In Southern Sudan, too, criminal justice was set aside in favour of political reform. Why could the same not work in Darfur? Could it be because the area became a global cause célèbre after 11 September 2001?

There is an international dimension to the Darfur crisis, too. Current debates over how to end the conflict in Darfur have focused narrowly on the charges brought by the International Criminal Court against the president of Sudan, on a criminal and legal solution rather a political one. When the ICC judges ruled on the application filed by its prosecutor, throwing out the charge of genocide but not that of crimes against humanity, they were not issuing a verdict on the charges but responding to a different question: if the facts stand as presented, would the accused have a case to answer? The facts are not yet on trial, but they will be if President Omar el-Bashir ever presents himself before the court. In that case, many of the most widely trumpeted claims – of 300,000 dead, of a “continuing” slaughter, and so on – will turn out to be unreliable.

Moreover, it is clear that the question of accountability applies not only to the alleged perpetrators, but also to the putative enforcers of justice. Who is to hold them accountable? In the absence of adequate and effective political accountability, the risk is that the law will be privatised and used to implement a narrow and partial agenda. The UN Security Council, for instance, has the power to refer or defer cases to the ICC. And when the Indian government refused to sign the Rome Convention to join the ICC, its main objection was that the court’s prosecutor was highly unlikely to hold to account the permanent members of the very UN Security Council to which the court itself is formally accountable. Experience in the post-11 September 2001 era suggests that this fear was not groundless.

Global justice is a worthy goal, but it cannot exist without a political system that ensures global accountability. In the absence of accountability, claims made in the name of global justice will, as the philosopher Martin Buber once said of the system of trusteeship put forward by the League of Nations, be little more than cover for the exercise of imperial power.

Mahmood Mamdani is the author of "Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror", published by Verso (£17.99)

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle