I saw you just now thumbing over a fat envelope of press cuttings with a glint in your eye. You jump on your mail with a similar avidity—especially the fan letters, favourable or unfavouraole. How many hours you've spent in front of the cameras, too, interviewing and 6eing interviewed, airing your views, holding forth! And yet you're always going on about television and the media generally as a hateful exercise in collective and individual narcissism.

True: one's image (how I abominate that word!) is an inescapable preoccupation. I see the camera, far more than even nuclear weapons, as the great destructive force of our time; it's replaced the written and spoken word, captured the whole field of art and literature. All the young want to do is to squint down a tiny lens and see all the world in it; the only art they really care about is celluloid. Yet how inferior and evanescent the celluloid products are! Think of all the talent and money that's been sunk in Hollywood, for instance—more, far more, than in all the cities of Renaissance Italy. And the result in terms of even minor art? Nil. When I think of all those miles and miles of celluloid, from D. W. Grifiith to Jean-Luc Godard. ..

How like you to go off into that tirade about the camera, thereby evading the question of why you spent so much time in front of it!

It began for me some fifteen years ago, when I was asked to interview Billy Graham; I'd hardly even looked at television before then, and hadn't the faintest notion of what it was going to mean; to our way of life in general, and to me personally. It was just something that turned up, and I did it, and went on doing it.

Yes, but why?

For money, I suppose, and out of vanity. It's not particularly well paid, but one has the illusion that, compared with writing, it doesn't involve any work. Actually, it's very tiring and depressing. I don't think I've ever once walked off a television set without a feeling of despair. This is something to do with the medium itself, not any particular programme—though some, I admit, are more depressing than others. The worst I ever experienced—its horror abides with me still—was an encounter with Dr Christian Barnard and a studio full of distinguished doctors and surgeons. They were appalling in their grossness, their total inability to see beyond mortal flesh and their carving knives. By contrast, the most satisfying appearance I ever made was with Brendan Behan. This was because he was completely drunk; he just sat there, drunk and inviolate under the arclamps.

This doesn't explain why you go on appearing on television while perpetually denouncing the medium. Isn't that—to put it mildly—rather preposterous?

I see what you mean. I don't need the money any more, and at sixty-six vanity becomes ridiculous. Really, I don't think I've got much left. I have a sort of notion, though, that I may find an opportunity to say something, or convey something, which is worthwhile. Look at it this way. Supposing one was a pianist in a whore-house—one might be able to persuade oneself that occasionally including a hymn like 'Abide With Me' in one's repertoire would have a beneficial influence on the inmates. You see what I mean?

Yes, the more readily because you've used that comparison before.

So I have, and so would you if you had to write for a living. I agree it's not very convincing. It doesn't really convince me— which is why I can never bear to look at myself on television unless it's absolutely unavoidable. Whatever you put into it, what comes out is phoney—like a speech by Harold Wilson, or a National Theatre production. You've no idea how desolate it is on the other side of the cameras, how isolated one feels there, how cut off from reality—like a sea-lion washed up on Margate sands.

You've used that before, too.

I know I have, and I expect I'll use it again.

No doubt. What's all this about your being a Christian, and forgoing the pleasures of the flesh? I just can't tell you how sick I get of hearing you railing against the ills of a materialist society. You're just as greedy and randy as anybody else; rather more so, considering your years, I should have thought.

That might be true, but it doesn't alter the fact that a society like ours, dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, which means in practice the pursuit of pleasure—money, eroticism, success, etc., etc., with violence for kicks—is to me, very repellent. I'm entitled to express that opinion, I suppose?

Yes, you are, but not to go on expressing it.

Why not? You don't have to listen. It's my considered view that the way of life of Western man today is the most horrible and degraded that ever existed on earth …

Don't l know it? Oh, God, don't I know it?

... and what's more, it's breaking up so fast that, whereas I used to imagine it would somehow stagger on through my remaining years, I now think that these old eyes will see the crackup. In a way, it's deliriously funny, of course—going to the moon when you can't walk with safety through Central Park, or for that matter through Hyde Park nowadays, after dark; fixing up a middle-aged dentist with a new heart in one part of Africa while in another part tens of thousands die of starvation in a squalid tribal war for which we, among others, provide the arms; promoting happiness enriched by an ever-rising Gross National Product, and sanctified by birth pills, pot and abortions for all on the National Health, while the psychiatric wards fill to overflowing, suicides multiply and crimes of violence increase year by year. I could go on and on.

I know you could, you often have, but please don't. What about your own behaviour? Don't you keep your head well down in the trough?

No, I don't, as a matter of fact, though my present abstemiousness, I admit, is a form of self-indulgence. It's something I like, that makes me happy. I should loathe nowadays to have my senses muddled or clouded by alcohol or drugs or

tobacco, or even food. It's an exquisite pleasure to look out at life, as it were, through a window that isn't misted over; with the curtains drawn back and the light pouring in. All the persuasion to which one's subjected is, of course, in the opposite direction—to indulge one's appetites, particularly sexual ones. Advertising, current philosophical and even religious attitudes, aim at promoting the notion that satiety is the key to happiness and serenity. I don't agree. I think the Christian proposition is true—that we have to die in the flesh to be reborn in the spirit.

And I think you're just a sated old lecher who has reacted in the classic way by becoming an angry ascetic; a pinchheck Savonarola, as someone called you. You pride yourself on an abstemiousness your past excesses have imposed on you, and, at the same time, out of rage and envy denounce the indulgence of others still fortunate enough to be young and in possession of their faculties.

My excesses, as you call them, weren't particularly pleasurable, and if you think I'm envious of the young today—well, think again. I pity them with all my heart, and perfectly understand their resort to aimless protest, dropping out, drugs and despair; sometimes to suicide. Nor is it true that my attitude has changed dramatically in old age. I always felt a stranger in the world, and for long have been sceptical about projects for improving our human lot. How little I've changed sometimes surprises me. For instance, the other day, looking over the four volumes of Orwelliana recently published, I came across a review he'd done of a book of mine (The Thirties) which I'd never seen before. My thesis, he wrote, 'boils down to a simple disbelief in the power of human beings to construct a perfect or even tolerable society here on earth. It is the Book of Ecclesiastes with the pious interpolations left out.' All that's happened subsequently (the review appeared in April 1940, when I was serving as a private in the army) is that I've put some of the pious interpolations back.

Incidentally, it was immensely moving to come across this review for the first time nearly thirty years after it was written. I could almost hear Orwell's rusty old voice speaking it. But forgive me. What else do you want to know?

What about money—which you affect to despise? You must be earning a lot nowadays.

I certainly earn a good deal more than I need. It would be absurd to earn less than I can, and the things I do for money for the most part I like doing. Otherwise, I shouldn't do them. So, I live modestly, try to behave generously—though not nearly generously enough—and comfort myself with the thought that my personal scale of living is not much, if at all, above that of, say, a retired schoolmaster. In any case, I'm convinced that money will shortly go down the drain; whatever we have we shall all lose—not over a course of years through slow inflation, but hey presto! and it'll be gone. My own little hoard—mainly derived from a paid-up insurance policy—will, I'm sure, disappear in this way. I could, of course, buy things with it now, which is what, as we all know, a lot of people are doing. As it happens, I don't want anything, so I just carry on. That's my situation.

I hear you, as Lord Reith would say, but somehow I'm not convinced.

Nor am I. About money and sex it's impossible to be truthful ever; one's ego is too involved. The only solution would be to become a lay-brother in a monastic order. Then one would have no stake in the world—no need to fight in its wars, grub for its money or grind out one's appetites at its behest and on its behalf. One would be free, in the same sort of way that, as Pasternak's hero in Dr Zhivago points out, under a Communist regime practically the only place where it's possible to be free is in prison. One has to be arrested to be free.

Why aren't you a lay-brother then?

Don't be silly. I've got a wife and children, and grandchildren, to my great delight. How could I be a monk? All I meant to say—as you perfectly understand—was that I often pined for total detachment from a society whose standards I despise and whose future prospects I regard as catastrophic, but in which I, none the less, have an inescapable stake.

Isn't that a rather pessimistic attitude?

To a shallow twentieth-century mind, yes. Actually, no. To suppose that our present way of life is viable, and that the trivial satisfactions it offers suffice to make us happy, would be pessimistic indeed; to realise its wretchedness and inevitable breakdown, its fantasy and horror, is the height of optimism. The darkness falls to idiot cries of progress achieved, of mankind having come of age, with vistas of technological bliss, and a Gadarene rush over the hills and far away. Fiat nox!

What a death-wisher!

On the contrary, as I come to realise this more clearly, I love my fellow-men, the earth itself, the enchanting passage of time, being alive, more, not less—something beyond your comprehension. All that has been achieved by our poor little human species in the way of understanding and expounding what life is about and how it works fills me with wonder and joy when I see it in relation to the shining mystery of things; as scribble on the fly-leaf of a mighty and incomprehensible tome. It's when it's presented with infantile arrogance and credulity, as betokening men like gods, that it seems so pitiable and absurd.

So you just fold your arms, convinced that there's nothing to be done ahout anything. Isn't that Quietism?

Or Jansenism. Or Manicheism. The prevailing notion is that salvation can only come through action, and that whatever deflects our attention from here and now is an evasion, a selfish pursuit of private virtue and serenity. Yet think of all the kingdoms of heaven on earth that have been proclaimed in our time Where are they now?—the Reich that was going to last a thou sand years, Stalin's paradise so admired by Shaw and the Webbs and all the other illuminati of the Left, the Welfare State, the Great Society. The bottom's fallen out of all of them, hasn't it? The trouble with kingdoms of heaven on earth is that they're liable to come to pass, and then their fraudulence is apparent for all to see. We need a kingdom of heaven in Heaven, if only because it can't be realised.

Perfect for those set in authority over us, isn't it? That's just what they want to hear. They must love you nowadays!

If so, they manage to hide it rather successfully. The great illusion of the age is that truth consists of facts and virtue of action. Actually, there's far more truth in the Book of Genesis than in the quantum theory, and a Francis of Assisi or a Wesley did far more to ameliorate the human condition than a Beveridge or a Karl Marx. I've spent a number of years in India and Africa, where I found much righteous endeavour undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society or a Humanist leper colony.

So you discount all the efforts of the liberal-minded and progressive to make the world a better place and human life more tolerable?

Not precisely. I recognise that the motive is often admirable; unfortunately the result is almost invariably the exact opposite of what's intended. Thus, expanding public education has served to increase illiteracy; half a century of pacifist agitation has resulted in the two most ferocious and destructive wars of history, political egalitarianism has resulted in a heightened class-consciousness, and anti-capitalist legislation in intensified cupidity; internationalism has embittered the relations between nations, and sexual freedom has led to erotomania on a scale hitherto undreamed of. I could go on and on. Posterity (assuming there is one), is likely, in my opinion, to see liberalism and all its legislative and social consequences as the working-out of a collective death-wish. They will not otherwise be able to account for the fact that, in its name, the essentially Christian foundations of European civilisation were systematically undermined, its strength dissipated, and the moral, social and political order it had evolved irretrievably shattered. Public benevolence can never be a substitute for private virtue; it is more important, and more difficult, to check one outburst of temper, however trivial, than to engage in any number of public demonstrations against collective brutality and injustice.

Wouldn't it be more sensible, and more honest, then to go the whole hog and join the Roman Catholic Church?

There, again, speaks a contemporary mind. If not Moscow, Rome; if not humanism, deism; if not logical positivism, illogical negativism. I hate all the categories. The only thing I care about—dare I say it?—is truth, and its climate, love. There are a lot of things to admire in the Roman Catholic Church—its survival, its plainsong, its authentic internationalism, the tough, obstinate battle it has waged against the twentieth century; above all, the fact that, with all its villainies and chicanery, it has managed to keep the allegiance of the poor. Leftist movements, whether led by a Stalin or a Harold Wilson, once they get into power are hated by the poor with particular virulence; the Protestant Churches have long ago become, like N.A.T.O., a headquarters without an army; the dissident students similarly have no rank and file. Yet still, before the altar-rail, the poor gather, opening their mouths hungrily for the Body and Blood of Christ. Not for much longer though, I think. The long resistance is over, the surrender about to take place—in the teeth of the opposition, let it be said to his eternal honour, of the present Pope. I used to suppose that the Roman Catholic Church, having so valiantly and obstinately defended its citadel against the assaults of a triumphant and vainglorious scientific materialism, would celebrate a well-deserved victory. Instead, to my amazement, just when the attacking forces were about to withdraw in disarray, the citadel's defenders have opened their gates and emerged bearing white flags.

That's for the telly. Render unto the telly the things that are the telly's. What we all want to know is what this sub-Chestertonian Christianity you're always blathering about nowadays means to you, if anything.

What does it mean to me?—a very bright light and very deep darkness, an inconceivable hope and blackest despair, an overwhelming love and an abysmal desolation; a man's life and death playing out the drama of the world, and the world's life and death playing out the drama of a man... But, look, the floor manager's signalling. Our time's up, I'm so sorry. It was so kind of you to come along to the studio this evening. Cut! Oh, Glory Alleluia, cut!

Observer, 15 December 1968