Charles Moore Photo: Policy Exchange via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Moore has at different times edited The Spectator, The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph, and continues to write popular columns in The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. In 2003 he gave up his editorship of The Daily Telegraph to begin work on the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, the first volume of which came out in 2013. Ferdinand Mount reviewed it in The Times Literary Supplement, writing that Moore’s Thatcher “will take its place alongside the monumental multi-volume Lives of earlier great prime ministers—Moneypenny and Buckle’s Disraeli, Morley’s Gladstone and John Grigg’s Lloyd George—while being more entertaining than any of these.”
With Volume Two having just been published (Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants), Luke O’Sullivan caught up with Moore to ask which books and authors had inspired him to such a productive and successful career as an editor and writer.
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LOS: Who are your favourite contemporary authors?
CM: I don’t think I have a favourite. I read contemporary literature here and there but there is not one contemporary author who I would single out.
LOS: Not Harris, or Boyd or Amis or Read?
CM: I actually haven’t read much Boyd though I do think he’s good and I like Robert Harris. I will read his new Cicero book but I haven’t yet. I think that’s in part because I’m a journalist and so am constantly immersed in reading new things, so I prefer older writing. I’m averse to reading a new book just because it has landed on my doorstep. I think time does a bit of critical work for one by sifting out the books that are really good—if a book’s reputation remains strong for a very long time the likelihood is that it’s worth reading. Also I prefer a different tone of voice to what tends to be fashionable today, so for pleasure and reflection I’m more likely to read a past book rather than a current book. I’m not saying “our era is producing nothing of worth” or anything like that. It’s just that I’ve got too many books anyway, and I’m oppressed by all the books I haven’t read.
LOS: What are the books on your reading list?
CM: It isn’t even like that I’m afraid. It would be a very random list related to a specific piece of work I’m engaged in. But let me go and have a look beside my bed… I’m reading Black Snow by Bulgakov which is a very good satire. And The Passing Years by Lord Willoughby de Broke. He was one of the great ‘last ditchers’ trying to defend the House of Lords from reform. The pages are uncut so I have to sit with a knife to open them. Also The White Guard by Bulgakov, which I haven’t got round to yet. Bulgakov was a Russian, but I will probably not talk too much about non-English literature here. The reason is not that I don’t care about foreign literature or don’t read it, but that I almost always read it in translation because I am such a poor linguist. So I don’t know the work in language terms. I love Chekhov, for example, but of course don’treally know what he’s saying.
LOS: In terms of English authors then—which have formed you intellectually? You’ve written about your admiration for Michael Oakeshott.
CM: Yes. Oakeshott’s On Human Conduct is too difficult for me. I love his essays, such as ‘Rationalism in Politics’ and ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’. One virtue of Oakeshott’s writing is that unlike a lot of political theorizing you can keep ruminating on it and coming back to it because it’s not selling you an over-exact theory, but a way of looking at things. You can chew over it a bit. So in terms of 20th century political writers he’s the one I’d most enjoy reading.
I don’t pick up for pleasure Hobbes or Mill or whatever. Edmund Burke I would because he’s not really a theorist so much as a sort of commentator cum historian cum polemicist, and I’m happier to think in that way about political things than to think of them in terms of pure political theory.
LOS: William Cobbett?
CM: Cobbett’s a good read but he’s preposterously, comically opinionated. Nevertheless he’s a good punchy read and he has an interesting way of looking at things. His memoirs are comically vain. He’s full of this incredible energy which is a sort of egotism. I wouldn’t seek wisdom in Cobbett but I do think he’s interesting and good.
LOS: Where would you seek wisdom?
CM: Perhaps from Burke. But again not overwhelmingly from one book. Reflections on the Revolution in France is clearly the key text but you could just as well read one of his essays or his letters.
Dr Johnson I’d look to, mainly as mediated through Boswell, though I do enjoy his own writing—his essays and his Lives of the Poets and some of his polemical writing. I’m also interested in his character. This is one of the things he shares in common with Mrs Thatcher. There emanates from Johnson as with Mrs Thatcher character rather than theory. He had that funny Old Tory mixture of being an outsider but also someone who respects hierarchy and tradition. He’s bloody minded but also quite holy in a strange way. And Boswell captures this brilliantly because he so carefully noted what he said and how he said it and so, by reading Boswell, you can almost have a conversation with Dr Johnson.
LOS: And where do you look to for religious inspiration?
CM: I think generally I would look for religious inspiration in books which are not argumentative—in the sense that they are not responding to a problem of the moment. The interviews Pope Benedict gave before he was pope were very good. I was inspired by Pope John Paul II, though I found the Pope’s personal writings, as opposed to his encyclicals, quite Polish—quite existential and dense. I read Laudato Si [Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment] and though I found it confusing as a theoretical policy document, I thought its pastoral elements were strong. He’s good when he’s talking about the sufferings of the poor, of the difficulties experienced by families who are left without a home. I admire Pope Francis as a shepherd, for his ideas of Christian welcome, of living the Christian life without fear, and of embodying the sense in which Jesus doesn’t simply wait for his flock to find Him. I am not one of those conservatives who are opposed to Pope Francis.
LOS: Newman seems to be a man of the moment…
CM: I think with Newman, The Apologia and The Development of Christian Doctrine are excellent. Reflecting on Newman, though, I would say he was pretty donnish. He had those donnish qualities of obsesssion about quarrels which can sometimes seem petty today. There was something very Oxford about him. You could say that he saw many issues through an Oxford prism. And when you understand that you can also see what an extraordinary thing it was for him to have left Oxford and never returned. There is that poignant description he gives of never seeing Oxford again after he had left, except from a train, which shows you just how much he loved the place. I think that he was a very brilliant man and a very beautiful writer and though some of the controversies may seem minor today there is an important theme which survives, which is this attempt to understand Catholic truth. He was holy as well. He wasn’t just arguing drily about the nature of the Church. He was trying to understand what that meant in life, through sermons and so forth. So you get a truly religious sensibility coming out of that, whereas some religious writers you don’t necessarily get that same religious sensibility because they are just having an argument with someone else—though of course Newman usually was having an argument with someone too.
LOS: And what of literature which is not theological but which is nonetheless inspired by Christian ideas?
CM: On religious writing in general, a writer who influenced me a great deal both at an argumentative and at a non-argumentative level was Eliot. The Four Quartets above all. But also Murder in the Cathedral and a lot of his poems and essays. The essays can seem a bit prissy—again he has a donnish approach—but they are very interesting and well written. Things like Tradition and the individual Talent. I was a huge Eliot maniac when I was very young and then I went off him and now I’m back on to him again.
LOS: What sort of age is very young?
CM: I’d say 14 to 22. Along with some others. George Herbert. David Jones. Jones is less well known today. He was primarily a painter but I think his writing and his painted inscriptions were better than his paintings. His most famous work was In Parenthesis which I think is better understood as a poem than as a novel. I think if you read it as a novel you will be disappointed because it doesn’t have a story arc or characters who ‘do things’. But what it does brilliantly is to link all of the things that Jones is interested in into a Christian framework: Welshness and Englishness, and the liturgy and the situation of the common man—particularly the common soldier. It’s a sort of national piece, not in a tiresome way—in the sense of drum banging and protests—but it is interested in the particular character of our islands. This is even better realised in his great poem The Anathemata and its introduction. And so he always finds resemblances and echoes. For instance between what is happening in Modern London as against what happened in Roman London or between a battle being fought now as against a battle which was fought in the middle ages or whatever.
LOS: Was there a common thread shared between these three authors—Herbert, Jones and Eliot—which drew you to them?
CM: I suppose I’m always looking at things historically in the sense that I don’t think there are a series of plain propositions which tell you a great deal. Everything arises out of an inherited experience, even if it’s a theoretical position. All the theory comes back to an acquaintance with things, and of course this is true of language itself which is a constant development of itself—there’s not this thing called language which was suddenly laid out and invented—and therefore the best writers are the people who understand this and exemplify this. I find that the language of Eliot is very consciously like that in the way that it echoes things, and develops meanings that already exist and traces those meanings back. I think Milton does that too. He is sometimes accused of being a dreary dogmatist, but actually I think he’s a very sensuous writer, he uses language very consciously to draw on its huge range of meanings which he has discerned from scripture, Greek and Hebrew and Latin and which he makes new in English. He draws on things which have been said before in English and so on, and he does it all with great intellectual power. So anything like that I tend to enjoy.
Herbert is much less argumentative. But again he has that quality of listening to words. I think that as a writer you shouldn’t just be composing words, you should be listening to every word you ever hear. So for me the strongest intellectual influences will be Christian and classical writers who are aware of that, and proud of it, and who try to make something new out of it rather than wishing none of it had ever happened. And of course they all have a religious view, which to varying degrees combines a personal faith with an understanding—which some people without a personal faith still have—of the importance of religion to our understanding of the world.
So for example with Oakeshott, I’ve never really known if he was Christian and I would say he probably wasn’t exactly Christian, but he has a very strong feel for it. All the others I mentioned were specifically Christian. I’m much less interested by writers who are thoroughly un-Christian because I think what then happens is that they cut themselves off from these roots I’m talking about, and instead become overly rational.
I don’t mean of course that it’s bad to be rational but I think these people who begin to admire their own rationality—authors like Gibbon, Hume, AJ Ayer—they become rather show-off-men type writers. Another example would be Hugh Trevor Roper—a beautiful writer, but too influenced by the clever man’s love of scorn. This idea that “I’m much cleverer than they are” begins to dominate and I think it is an unhelpful way of thinking about things. Richard Dawkins would be like that in present times, if rather crude and unsubtle by comparison.
LOS: Does this make you feel estranged from contemporary authors who have less and less of a sense of tradition?
CM: I think they tend to be narrow, no matter how talented they are. So someone like Martin Amis has absolutely nothing of any interest to say, although he’s a talented and intelligent man, because he doesn’t have an interesting way of looking at the world. Whereas Philip Larkin, though he was probably an atheist, had a very interesting way of looking at the world partly because of his sensitive understanding of the religion which he did not believe in, and partly because of the things he read.
A writer who I do think is very good, but who I haven’t read an awful lot of is Hilary Mantel, who again, although she perhaps doesn’t believe in the Catholicism she was born into and brought up within, nonetheless understands what it is all about. I think as a result she has a depth and a range of meaning which others lack.
I think it’s relevant too, in relation to this view of English literature, that there’s quite a big difference between the Catholic and the Anglican literary sensibility. I’m an admirer of both, but I think there are big differences. Trollope and Austen are the outstanding Anglican authors and I love the way they deal with religious matters, which is barely ever to address them directly.
LOS: Which are your favourite novels by Trollope and Austen?
CM: Probably Persuasion by Austen, which I regard as her most grown up novel if that’s not patronising, and with Trollope it would be one or more of his Barchester novels.
LOS: Mansfield Park is sometimes described as Austen’s great conservative novel…
CM: I’m less of an admirer of Mansfield Park which I think is slightly more programmatic. Less subtle and less entertaining. Trollope when he’s doing satire is very good. The Way We Live Now is brilliant about the financial crash. I think the Barchester novels are his masterpieces, though. It’s an Anglican sensibility, but it’s also very good on reality. He’s very good on how a person may have a moral outlook, but might also feel he has to earn 400 more pounds a year, because he needs to look after his children or whatever. So he’s very good on these moral dilemmas people face. He’s also very good on women who are strong characters in a world where women are not allowed to be in charge, and at depicting a moral universe, a civilization. He’s also brilliant at revealing the Irish dimension—because of his understanding of that country—so it’s not all smart people in London or anything like that.
LOS: And what of the Catholic sensibility?
CM: Well personally it’s less to my taste in English literature than the Anglican sensibility because sometimes it feels like a bit of a trick, which is that if you make something very difficult and paradoxical you can start talking about the operation of divine grace. So I think in that sense Brideshead Revisited, for instance, though I think it is in some senses superb, and that there are wonderful things in it, is not overall an artistic success. And then Chesterton I think takes paradox too far, almost to the point that it is a nervous tic, that he can’t write a sentence without including a paradox. It is a great feature of Christianity of course, as in “when I am weak, then I am strong” but there’s too much of it in Chesterton for my taste, though I do admire him.
LOS: What of Tolkien?
CM: Well he would have been a big influence on me because I loved Lord of the Rings as a boy. Looking back on it now I feel that it is slightly creakily written, but as a boy I loved his creation of a world, and of course all the things he learnt and passed on from being a scholar of early literature—the idea of “quest” and journey and so on, and the invention of languages and tales of battles. I mean, it’s just a superbly sustained world in which he’s thought up everything really, hasn’t he?
Luke O’Sullivan is co-editor of the UK literary, culture & politics review, Quadrapheme, where this article was first published. It is reproduced here with permission. Follow Luke O Sullivan on Twitter