I wrote more than 30 books for children, and really enjoyed those years, especially going to schools. But my work answering problem letters — first in The Times and, for the past 11 years, in the Daily Mail — brings me enormous satisfaction. I know it does some good, because readers regularly write to tell me, and say thank you.
I’ve always been fascinated by people and what makes them tick. As a young reporter, I met so many different types; but my lifelong inspiration has also been literature. I find in the great novels and poetry that I’ve studied all the wisdom of the best of humanity.
The message of Christ reaches deep into our relationships, and enjoins tolerance, forgiveness, love. That’s the best message in the world, to me. But my own spiritual life is solitary. I will contemplate my works of art at home and gain profound solace from the Virgin Mary, but also from the Buddhist Kuan Yin. I like sacred art, I like Picasso, I like a very wide range of art, and some abstract painters, like Mondrian, but not conceptual art, and I hate the work of Lucian Freud because it’s ugly. I want beauty and colour, but what form it takes may vary. I’m always drawn to the earlier art of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Jan van Eyck.
I was fascinated by the timelessness of the traditional deadly sins that we see punished in the great paintings of the Last Judgement. The greatest literature is about the conflict within the human heart — conflict which is often caused by sins like lust or greed.
A few years ago, I wrote a talk on the subject of the seven deadly sins. It went down very well, which is why we’re repeating it in Bath, following it with a panel discussion, to raise money for the church. It’s taken months to get everyone together on the same night, but I’ve got Martin Palmer, who’s a most erudite man, and Ernie Rae; so I hope that they will be able to broaden it to bring in what other cultures say about sin. I hope that members of the audience will be honest enough to admit that they sin.
The world is as full of sin as ever: greed, lust, rage, gluttony, envy, pride, idleness — what’s new? Social media bring out the worst in people, and experiencing this severely dented my own optimism and faith in humanity. I think arrogance is the greatest sin; what needs to be cultivated is humility. But it won’t be. Humanity adores its own sins, and doesn’t feel it needs them forgiven, as in the Lord’s Prayer.
You have to be able to make a judgement that things are right or wrong — you can’t be relative about that. An awful lot of excuses are made. Viktor Frankl has been a great influence on me, recently, and he tells a story of talking to prisoners who really responded to his talk about man’s search for the meaning of life, because he told them that there were no excuses for what they’d done. We can’t say “I did this because my mother was mean to me,” or “Someone bullied me,” or “I was poor.”
While it’s important to find the reasons for what people do, we can also say that they were wrong to do it, and must repent to be forgiven. You have to take responsibility for your one life — God-given or nature-given, whatever you think — and you have the responsibility to make that life as good as you can be. We know that people with massive disabilities can do it; so we know that we can do it, too.
I have been, in my life, extremely cool. I’m happy to abjure that title now. That Edith Piaf song — when I was young, I used to love it, smoking cigarettes, drinking whisky, thinking I was very cool. Bollocks! I do regret things, I have a lot I’m sorry for, and I feel better for admitting it.
My chief sin at the moment is covetousness, because I like buying art. I’m too old for lust now, but have a goodly sprinkle of pride on my halo. The rest of the seven? No. But, yes, I think it’s good to be honest about your own wrongdoing and not expect others to be tolerant until you’ve admitted that you’re wrong. These days, too many excuses are made for vile behaviour. I wish more people would say: “I was very wrong, and I am very sorry.”
But you can flip it, because it’s immensely cool to say people have responsibility for their own lives. What greater honour can you give them than to tell them that they have the power to make the best of their lives? Jesus told people not to judge others, but I expect to be judged, and I accept judgement, too.
The best adult novel of the six I have written is Lost Footsteps, set during and after the Romanian revolution of 1989. It’s a big sweep of a novel about refugees and identity, and I’m proud of it. Writing a novel teaches you great discipline, but I’ll never write another. It’s really hard work, and always ends in disappointment. Yes, you may get good reviews, but, in the end, who cares?
My Radio 4 series Devout Sceptics lasted a long time, and it won a Sandford St Martin’s award for religious broadcasting. My idea was to talk to people who may not follow an established faith, yet had a sense of the spiritual in the world around. We interviewed a wide range of people, from entertainers to statesmen.
I think my first experience of God was when I was about 15 and a member of the Methodist Church; but I’m not sure whether it was God or the fellowship of the church community that filled me with such emotion.
My childhood was working-class, in a Liverpool council flat, and in a very close, if quarrelsome, family. I was quite lonely, as I never felt I fitted in anywhere; so I loved my solitary reading and inner life. Nowadays, I can fit in anywhere, but my family and four grandchildren are at the centre of my life, my second marriage brings me immense happiness, and I love working at home alone with three little dogs at my feet.
I love to hear my grandchildren calling my name, “Bibi”, which is Swahili for “old lady”, or “grandmother.”
Snobbery makes me angry, and I have seen so much of it since the referendum to leave the EU. The elitism of those who maintain that all those who voted Leave are thick and racist disgusts me. But, to be more universal, I loathe pornography, and I’m enraged by the way women are treated across the globe. I will die a feminist.
Leaving family out of it — because, after all, they are tiring — I’d say what makes me happiest is being in a gallery or a church, and looking at sacred art; or standing by the river which runs though our garden.
After having a second son who was stillborn at full term in 1975, I had a daughter who was born with multiple health issues which lasted until she was well into her twenties, and then made her two pregnancies dangerous. We endured some terrible times.
I don’t look ahead much. I adore my column, and writing other things for the Daily Mail. I just want to live in the present and enjoy life.
Children give me hope for the future, of course. Life is hard for them these days — wretched social media again — but they deserve the best education (sadly, not always there) and to be taken care of.
First of all, I give thanks, because my life is full of blessings. Then I pray for my parents, who are 96 and 94, that they may not suffer when they die. Then I pray for my children and grandchildren, that they may stay healthy and happy. Always those three.
If were locked inside a church, I hope I would have Jesus with me, anyway; but, as well, I’d like to have my favourite novelist, George Eliot, who was surely a Christian agnostic, as I am. She and I would have such a wonderful conversation (sustained by communion wafers and wine) until somebody opened that big old door.
Bel Mooney was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
The lecture, followed by a panel discussion, takes place at Christ Church, Bath, at 7.30 p.m. on 2 October. For information on tickets (£10 to include a glass of wine), phone 01225 463362, or visit bathboxoffice.org.uk.