The ordeal by chair

 

Soberly-suited, Anthony Clare in four cameo photographs metaphorically soft-shoe shuffles across the jacket of this book. His "psychiatrist's chair", uninhabited, swishly upholstered in lurid, manic-depressive blue, is sharing top billing. Beside it, Dr Clare is frowning or musing, beaming benignly or staring down as though to contemplate the ultimate depths of its mystery.

Clare's presence seems full of artifice, somewhat frolicsome, debonair, a touch enigmatic, a virtual composite of his "psychiatric" demeanour within these pages. Yet he is playfully spoofish, too. The roll call of Clare's chosen interviewees is deliciously rich in ripe variety - Nigel Kennedy, "the wild boy of the classical world", Uri Geller, the "phenomenon", Stephen Fry, self-confessed "bad lot" and famous scarperer, "Doris Karloff", aka former Tory minister for prisons, Ann Widdecombe, plus lesser-knowns with sediment to stir; there are confessional, revelatory moments in the company of scholar Sir Kenneth Dover, or Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist who "provides a remarkable insider's picture of what it is like to be manic and depressed".

In 400 pages - across the texts of a dozen encounters - we witness versions, potent versions, of each of Clare's coterie. Are these self-promulgated fictions (as Clare astutely suspects of Geller), reinventions, painful exposees? The truth? Does Clare assist in their construction? Do his questions, his interruptions, his observations merely punctuate, or shape, or actually catalyse these "selves" as they materialise, taking shape across the airwaves (as BBC radio broadcasts, their first incarnation), and thence on the page?

These are questions after the fact. The truth is, one never reads, or listens (I heard some five of these interviews "live" on Radio 4) with such an agenda in the foreground. I was engrossed and simultaneously entertained. The dramatis personae know their roles and obligations. The psychiatrist's chair becomes their crucible and cradle, a place of previousness, as memory engages, dredges, filters, or as the smelter of recast selves reshapes old bronze. The experience veers at times into moments of heightened consciousness - spotlit blips of irreducible radio drama.

Clare is dextrous in his handling of such affairs, at times like the ghost of the ouija board, a potent invisible presence, at others engaging himself in a flurry of rejoinders and ripostes, as when confronting war correspondent, Martin Bell, with his reluctance to face emotion. Dr Clare listens to what people tell him, to implication, reading their pauses, their hesitations, their choice of words. He is shrewd and stealthy. After the skirmish with Bell he waits for almost nine pages to ask Martin Bell: "What makes you angry?"

Knowing how to correct the balance, how to up-end it, to tease, to jest, to offer empathy, to guide the interviewee towards self-recognition is Clare's stock in trade, a composite matter of intelligence, intuition and experience melded and mediated through years of professional rigour. This lends licence to the enterprise, legitimises the reader's eavesdropping presence, encouraging interviewees to "discuss their feelings and impulses", and perhaps, as in such cases as Fry and Dover, reflect upon them.

Other interviewees expressly, or more deviously, engage in obfuscation; Ann Widdecombe states: "I looked forward to the duel and I think in many ways I've had one." Novelist Paul Theroux tells Clare: "A writer is probably the last person you should ask to do self-analysis .. ." Reputedly aggressive (which he disputes), given to truculence and contempt, Theroux tackles family dysfunction, discussing sibling wars, with slippery aplomb.

The Theroux encounter neatly exemplifies Clare's ability to elicit substantial evidence in support of the identikit by which, in some cases, his subjects are better known (Fry as the witty, allusive man of many parts; Geller as slick; Yehudi Menuhin as grandfatherly, genial genius), yet in the process transcending caricature, revealing cracks or chasms, verbal ripples that chart the currents of deeper truths and inclinations.

In print these interviews are susceptible to perusal, re-reading, analysis, the succulent, quietly ruminative pleasure of armchair punditry-cum-empathy. Not least they reveal Clare's way with the artful question, his charm and gloss, his skills of survival and mutuality. Like the book, he's unputdownable.

Tom Adair is a critic based in Scotland

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