by Charles Moore
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.