Edna O'Brien: 'I had to grow old before they'd give me credit'

Where are the leaders who can inspire us? That's what Edna O'Brien would like to know. "The over-riding self-importance! I despair!" says the great Irish writer and social commentator, railing against modern politicians. "If you compare how they speak now with how Churchill and Disraeli spoke … language was used more carefully, more pertinently. Now everything is so …." She ponders what to say, a literary grande dame about to receive a lifetime achievement award at the age of 83 for the power and precision of her words. Having found the right one, she speaks slowly, in a low voice that shudders with disgust. "So … ordinary!"

That is the last word anyone would use to describe this remarkable novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright and force of nature, whose books were banned and burnt in Ireland in the Sixties but became hits everywhere else. She swung through London having dalliances with Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery once failed to stop her taking LSD. Paul McCartney sang her children to sleep.

She survived to become a serious public figure and a bit of a legend: Edna O'Brien the brilliant, forthright redhead standing up for the right of women everywhere to think and feel and say and write about it whatever they wanted to. After 20 works of fiction she has been hailed by Philip Roth as "the most gifted woman now writing in English". And O'Brien has just become the second winner of the Charleston-Chichester Award for a Lifetime's Excellence in Short Fiction. She is to receive it the morning after our meeting, at the Small Wonders literary festival at Charleston, East Sussex, spiritual home of the Bloomsbury group. The previous winner was William Trevor. "Ireland is creeping its way into Sussex," she says. "Or maybe marching."

O'Brien was a panellist on the first Question Time, in 1979. Having sparred with politicians all her working life, weren't they always shallow, vain attention-seekers? "The sense of self-promotion is far more evident now, but any cosmic or spiritual sense is absent. That is to do with the vulgarisation of our society."

The prospect of another war in Iraq disturbs her, having marched against the last one. "I met wonderful people. My feet were better then. I can't understand why Tony Blair doesn't say, 'I did wrong.' I think it would be his spiritual salvation." Again, the language disturbs her. "Shock and awe? How dare they use those words. That is for a musical on Broadway with chorus girls." Again, a pause before a tremulous pay-off. "Oh, they're bastards!"
Edna O'Brien is certainly entertaining company, even at the dying of the day in a quiet Sussex garden, where we take tea as the birds settle into the trees around us. She is tiny and elegant, in a long striped skirt and matching scarf. She runs her finger along her lips as she talks, like a question mark. Her low, deliberate voice is weirdly reminiscent of an Irish Margaret Thatcher, a comparison she would surely hate. Tired after being driven from her home in Knightsbridge, she is revived by a cup of Earl Grey.

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