A ceiling at the Church of Atotonilco, Mexico, featuring Christ and Judas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Who was Judas: the man who was offered goodness and said “No”

Was Judas an evil man who chose to betray Christ of his own free will – or did God make him do it?

Different cultures make different judgements about what the worst of crimes might be. The Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, looking back on his complex history in the era of Stalin’s purges and the suppression of his greatest work, The Master and Margarita, wrote that cowardice was the greatest – or “one of the greatest” – of vices and put those words into the mouths of various figures in the novel, including Jesus.

It is a novel about evasion and denial, about the costs of survival in a corrupt world, about who finally is able to tell you the truth about yourself. Cowardice is trying to escape the knowledge of denial; that is why it is terrible. So, Pontius Pilate is left in isolation and despair after he has ordered Jesus’s crucifixion; he knows he has denied the possibility of being spoken to truthfully and is stranded with his own cowardice and with his consciousness of what it has cost. He has tried to escape this knowledge and failed.

The novel, in its wildly fantastic and exhilarating conclusion, allows him a final redemption, thanks to the intercession of Margarita, the lover of the “Master” of the title, a lonely, self-censoring novelist, deeply preoccupied with – of course – cowardice. And cowardice in this extraordinary book is a very specific kind of vice. It is about the denial of what you know to be true, or what you know to be above all desirable. It is about the betrayal of your own intelligence and your own emotion; survival at the cost of suicide.

That perspective perhaps helps us understand why Dante puts “traitors to their benefactors” in the lowest circle of the Inferno, trapped under the ice. It is probably not too clear to modern readers why Brutus, Cassius and Judas are presented as the ultimate in human depravity: is treachery so much worse than other sins? But a medieval reader might answer that one who repudiates a benefactor offends decisively against both love and justice: the traitor denies the voluntary gift of love that is offered and thus negates justice completely, refusing to give in return what is deserved.

The traitor represents the essence of sin: the arbitrary refusal of what is good. Like Satan, who grinds the bodies of the three arch-traitors in his teeth, they have every reason to know what is good. They have been as close as possible to absolute, free goodwill exercised towards them and they have chosen to say “No” to it, to the source of their own well-being. This horrible eternity of being dismembered and devoured is what happens when you deny what at some level you know is true and life-giving. It may be called cowardice in Bulgakov’s sense or betrayal in Dante’s but the underlying insight is the same: this is how we most effectively and incurably destroy ourselves.

Peter Stanford concludes his book Judas: the Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle by writing that Judas’s fascination is that he can “speak to both the betrayed and the betrayer in all of us”. He is a figure to think with. And what we are prompted to think about is this disturbing aspect of our humanity that is afraid of truth, or of justice, or indeed of love, because of their potentially subversive and uncomfortable consequences. They all, in one way or another, upset our hopes for control. In the figure of a paradigm traitor, we have something like a thought experiment: imagine being confronted unambiguously with unqualified love, or justice, or truth; and imagine yourself desperately mouthing sideways, “Get me out of this,” or, “Give me an excuse for not taking this seriously.” Something in human motivation prefers independence to life, prefers security in isolation to ecstasy, or thanksgiving, or simply emotional nourishment. The grotesque image of Judas in the Inferno is of a figure whose head is buried inside Lucifer’s mouth. He is silent and faceless; he is outside the risky conviviality and interdependence of language and human interaction. He is silent, as Satan, too, is silent and ice cold, with tears streaming down his cheeks.

So, Judas can be a vehicle for wondering what motivates the denial of love. It’s a question we can answer by telling various kinds of biographical stories. The bizarre medieval legends that Stanford summarises, which purport to chronicle Judas’s childhood and youth, sometimes portray an Oedipal drama in which he unknowingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother, so that his emigration to Judaea and his friendship with Jesus are an attempted new beginning. Yet there is something foredoomed about him; the legends are there so that the betrayal will not be a surprise, so that we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are not left with a void of explanation.

A more modern writer, the Irish poet George William Russell, known as “Æ”, came up with a less colourful but related thought when he wrote, “In the lost boyhood of Judas/Christ was betrayed.” We need a theory. We need to know that the impulse to deny love or truth can be made sense of at some level. We scan the school photographs or school reports of monstrous killers, looking for some sign that all was not well even then. A few weeks ago, we were gazing at the images of a young Mohammed Emwazi – sitting and grinning among the other children in his primary-school class – and wondering what we and everyone else had missed.

Both the impulse to find an explanation and the admission of failure to find a complete one are morally important. The traitor is not a monster with no history, no childhood, no processes of learning; yet we cannot turn the acceptance of monstrosity into a reasonable decision. Evil is conditioned by our history – the abused becoming an abuser, the betrayed becoming a betrayer – and is also a free self-definition.

There are quite a few theories about Judas. Perhaps he meant well; perhaps he wanted to trigger a crisis in which Jesus would have no choice but to display his divine power; perhaps he was disillusioned by Jesus’s passivity and commitment to non-violence, or (at the other extreme) by his egoism and self-delusion. There is no shortage of modern fictional explorations, from Robert Graves’s monumental alternative mythology in King Jesus to Naomi Alderman’s finely understated and polyphonic The Liars’ Gospel. But in certain respects, they have their roots in the earliest texts. Is there, in the way Judas’s betrayal is related by St John, a hint that the trigger was a public and humiliating rebuke by Jesus? And St John is the first to impute to Judas greed and dishonesty: he is the treasurer of the group of disciples and helps himself to funds. By the time – a good deal later – of the apocryphal “Gospel of Judas”, we have a first version of the idea that Judas is the one who really understands Jesus and does what is necessary to bring about his saving death, apparently with Jesus’s consent or even initiative.

Yet the existence of these imaginative projections, which have slender support in the primary texts, suggests that people felt uncomfortable with the idea of a sheerly arbitrary rejection of the good. Judas, like Shakespeare’s Iago, is difficult to leave alone. Surely there was something? “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know,” says Iago, inviting everyone else onstage to ask themselves what they know of themselves. Judas’s exit from the story as St Matthew tells it, in which he flings the 30 pieces of silver in the faces of the priests and rushes off to kill himself, has something of that chilling, defiant refusal to be scrutinised by those who need to scrutinise themselves first. It is of a piece with the strange detail in the Gospels that when Jesus predicts that one of his disciples will betray him, all respond initially by asking, “Is it I?” It is as if they have already learned the lesson that no one can understand their betrayal – or their cowardice – in advance, that all are capable of giving way to the lure of denial.

All of us could choose darkness. We have to work hard and patiently to discern a glimpse of what prompts some people just that bit further; it is not a matter of predestination but a lethal entanglement in a spiral of destruction and, at some point, a more or less conscious decision that safety lies in going with the spin downwards.

This draws our attention to another disturbing aspect of the Judas story. At one point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus says that he “goes on his way” as has been fore­ordained – but that it would have been better for the man who betrays him never to have been born. For Jesus to achieve his liberating mission, someone must be the catalyst for the final confrontation and also must be destroyed by that confrontation. So is God responsible for Judas’s betrayal? If so, why should Judas be punished? And if the salvation of the world necessarily results in the death in suicidal despair of the predestined betrayer, is that a price worth paying?

These rather Dostoevskian questions leave both believer and unbeliever with unpalatable issues. Whether we are talking about God’s purposes or merely the achievement of definite human good by human means, the challenge is to answer if there are any courses of action to be taken for the sake of the good that are guaranteed to be free from a cost that has nothing to do with punishment and reward. Must it be the case that for anyone to be saved, someone must be damned?

Stanford touches rather sketchily on the theological conundrum implied here (quoting some unhelpfully muddled Vatican pundits apparently defending Judas on the grounds that someone had to be the betrayer, so perhaps we shouldn’t think too harshly of him after all); the complexities are not quite so soon exhausted. The late Donald MacKinnon, lecturing on the philosophy of religion in Cambridge in the 1960s, would return obsessively to this as an illustration of what was meant by the tragic. Are we in a universe where even the most unequivocal good imaginable can only be reached by a route involving an individual’s ruin? And this is one way of focusing a massive question about God and creation: we are told that a creation in which humans are free can be realised only by allowing into creation the possibility of things going wrong. But if “things going wrong” means the abuse and murder of children, genocide, torture, and so on, it rings hollow to say that these are a price worth paying. It simply isn’t possible to quantify suffering in this way, so as to decide that the overall cost benefit is still such as to make the bargain acceptable. Like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, we may well feel impelled to “return our tickets”, concluding that this simply is not a morally coherent way of looking at the universe.

MacKinnon also observed that the ruin of Judas was intimately related to some of what the Gospels seem to imply about the ruin of the Jewish people. Universal salvation is won, say the evangelists, because the chosen people reject Jesus – and, like Judas, they are savagely punished for that “rejection”, even though it is necessary in the scheme of things. Stanford has a good deal to say about the various anti-Semitic tropes that develop around the story of Judas, including the old slurs about Jewish greed. Medieval images frequently show Judas in characteristically Jewish dress or with stereotypical Jewish features; and Dante’s description of the circle of traitors to their benefactors as a “Giudecca” gives a particularly shocking dimension to his vision of the lowest hell. The name echoes that of Judas, as Dante says; but it is also the word often used for the ghettos of southern Italian cities. Well into the 20th century, Judas was still being used in anti-Semitic propaganda as a stock Jewish character.

So the issues around tragedy and God’s responsibility for evil are by no means distant or theoretical (given how hideously alive anti-Judaism is in Europe today). It will not quite do to suggest, as Hyam Maccoby did in an influential book much cited by Stanford, that the entire Judas story is deliberately created as a slur on the Jewish people, with a villain who has the ultimate Jewish name: Judas, like Jesus and Simon, was about as common a name in first-century Palestine as Thomas in Tudor England and there is no special reason to think that the name must be particularly significant. But it is undeniable that the fate of Judas, constantly re-presented, re-enacted, elaborated, was a regular focus for stirring anti-Jewish hatred and the “Christ-killing” stereotype was freely invoked in “blood libel” frenzies in the Middle Ages and afterwards.

It is true that Judas was also treated as the prototype of all usurers and bankers; medieval rhetoric against bankers could be as lurid as the modern variety. But the weight of symbolic significance unquestionably has to do with the demonisation of Jews. It is a long way from the terrified “Is it I?” of the disciples; or even the way in which, in the liturgy of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, the entire congregation is invited to take responsibility for Jesus’s betrayal and death. Bach makes this clear in the St Matthew Passion, both by using Paul Gerhardt’s chorale with the words “It is I, I who must repent” as a response to “Is it I?” and by giving the penitent Judas a musical soliloquy that, like all the solo airs in the Passion, offers a framework for the hearer’s self-recognition.

The truth is that the history of Christian teaching and worship in this area shows all too plainly how easy it is to shift the focus from individual complicity in evil to the scapegoating of the other; and so much in the great literary/ritual/mythical complex of the Easter liturgies that is primarily directed at this complicity – and demands that we recognise precisely that impulse to turn away from the obvious and overwhelming good to one or another form of self-protective power – can be manipulated into another tool of such power.

The Judas story leaves some substantial questions open for believer and sceptic. There is no final, satisfactory theory about why Judas should perform this act of irrational refusal, this negative image of justice and love. There will have been, as there always are, contingent things that trigger destructive capacity in people but the mysteriousness of how these work – why one schoolchild becomes a killer in the Middle East and another a blameless engineer or care worker – ought to make us wary of thinking that the rejection of love is something only found in people who are Not Like Us. If we don’t know why someone becomes a psychotic murderer, we are accepting that the processes of the inner life are very dark to us and that this darkness clouds our self-understanding as it does our understanding of others. Judas does an evil thing and is to be held accountable for it. It is not a destiny forced on him. Yet we must also say that Judas does an evil thing and we have no idea why – and we have to recognise that we must go on thinking as hard as we can about what moves people to evil. The question about “lost childhoods” is a real one.

The other question, about freedom, about God’s “complicity” in the possibility of evil actions, has produced even less in the way of a final theoretical perspective. The nearest to a resolution seems to be the hope, sporadically expressed throughout Christian history, as Stanford notes, that there could be absolution for Judas. This says both that evil is real and appallingly destructive and that the pain and loss it brings are not the last word. It’s probably the best we can do in response to a question that we all know is formidable and that is still somehow lived with by believers who are not otherwise stupid or immune to pain. What is worth noting, though, is that it is not just a theological question. The problem of what costs are worth incurring for the sake of ultimate justice or ultimate peace is something that touches any decision maker, at any level; and the brick wall of tragic choice that stands at the centre of the Gospel story is a potent signal that it is a dangerous illusion to think there are courses of action in the world that are guaranteed not to bring loss – loss of moral substance and integrity, of life and security – whatever the generosity of intention.

Stanford sets all these and several more issues running in a wide-ranging and often engaging book. It could have done with at least one more edit: the order of chapters and their content is often rather chaotic; there are some wince-inducing slips of detail (Thomas Aquinas is described as a “Franciscan” theologian, when he is probably the best-known Dominican in history) and a fair bit of wobbliness in chronology and historical interpretation (Dante is not usefully described as a “Renaissance” figure); the style is a relentlessly breezy and colloquial journalese that occasionally grates when the subject matter is as serious as much of this is. I can’t quite see how the chapter on Judas in the iconography of East Anglian churches sits with the rest of the book; and there are awkward gaps in reference to literature, ancient and modern. But Stanford, a much-respected commentator on Catholic affairs, has unearthed some fascinating material and left his readers with more than enough material to prompt some echo of the question “Is it I?”

Rowan Williams is the former archbishop of Canterbury and a lead reviewer for the NS

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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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