INTERVIEW / Sir Claus Moser: 73.5 per cent English: 'What is dangerous in the sort of life I've had is that there are moments when one might think one is indispensable'

Angela Lambert
Monday 27 July 1992 23:02

SIR CLAUS Moser, born a German Jew and now a naturalised Englishman, likes the story of the German who, in 1947, finally, triumphantly, becomes English. He emerges from the formalities long-faced. 'What's the matter?' his wife asks. 'This is one of the proudest days of your life] Why are you looking so miserable?'

'Terrible news]' he says. 'We've lost India.'

The joke pokes fun at those who, upon adopting a new nationality, take on a whole new identity. You might think that Sir Claus himself, who in the 35-odd years since taking British citizenship has become part of the fabric of the establishment, with a career spanning music, government and academia, was the best possible candidate for the joke. But you would be wrong.

The list of his achievements is formidable. Having spent 20 years moving through the hierarchy of the London School of Economics, ending as Professor of Social Statistics, he went on to head the Government Statistical Service from 1967 to 1978. This overlapped with his 13-year chairmanship of the Royal Opera House. He was also (the mind boggles at the energy all this demonstrates) for six years vice-chairman of N M Rothschild. In 1984 he became Warden of Wadham College, Oxford.

About these lofty posts and the honours that followed, Sir Claus is openly, endearingly vain. 'I like being knighted. I like all the honorary doctorates. I've got 13 now, and I'm proud of that.'

But of his own identity he has no doubt. He insists he is still and for ever a European Jew.

'The German background, the Berlin background, the Jewish background are so much part of my life that I can't understand people who came over, as I did, and say they feel 150 per cent English and never look back to their origins. Some of them are in Who's Who, and if you look them up, they weren't born anywhere. Not a day, not a week goes by that I'm not grateful for having been received here - but that's not the same as saying one feels totally English. I feel 73.5 per cent English and I am of course totally British.'

Sir Claus speaks perfectly accentless English, yet on the word 'British' he rolls the 'r' just slightly, a guttural reminder that English is his second language. 'None the less, part of me is rooted abroad. I'm a middle European Jew and I actually feel it.'

Claus Adolf Moser was born in Berlin in 1922. His father was a distinguished banker and a life-long influence; his mother a talented amateur musician. 'We had a lovely house in the centre of Berlin and another on the edge of the city to which we used to go at weekends. We had an English governess, so I was brought up in rather a traditional style. Berlin between the wars was an incredibly cultured city. There were four opera houses, endless concerts: music dominated my life.

'I remember the day as though it were yesterday - 30 January 1933 - watching the torchlight procession that signalled the beginning of Hitler's reign. After that we often saw Hitler and his gang on their way to his ghastly meetings. Things changed. The streets were full of Brown Shirts and we children didn't know what it was all about. But my father was well aware of their significance, and had decided as early as 1929 to take us away. He knew there was no future for Jews in Germany.

'My worst Berlin memory began in the spring of 1934. Every morning in school we 30 boys would be sitting in class, and the teacher would come in and say, 'Heil Hitler]' Everyone would respond, 'Heil Hitler]' except the two Jewish boys, who were not allowed to. We didn't want to, but all the same it was a daily public humiliation. Often we were beaten up in the playground.'

We are talking in one of the serene, soft-toned rooms in the spacious Warden's Lodgings at Wadham College, Oxford, where Sir Claus is in his ninth year as Warden. It is a very English drawing room. Does Sir Claus ever feel the urge to go back to Berlin?

'I've been back a few times. The extraordinary thing is that the road along which I walked to school every day for 10 years exists and a particular brick wall is still there' - he extends his hands, eyes half closed, as though he were feeling for its rough edges - 'and that brings back the most vivid memories, that ordinary bit of wall. I walk through Berlin and suddenly a street sign or underground station that survived the bombing will bring back with incredible vividness an outing to a shoe shop when I was a boy.'

Will he write his memoirs? Sir Claus is emphatic. 'No] I don't like writing and I'm not very good at it. But I do read and talk and think a great deal about what happened to the Jews, and I plan to devote more time to Jewish causes. I've never been very religious, but I have become more conscious, more proud and more involved in matters Jewish.

'I recently went to the villa near Wannsee where in 1942 Hitler - not satisfied with the speed at which he was murdering us - decided on the gas chambers. I want to understand what led to the greatest crime in history. How could a nation that gave me, as a child, the most marvellous art and music, turn to a dictatorship to get it out of its troubles?

'How could it commit such physical cruelty as the concentration camps and gas chambers, in which thousands of civilised men who were frightened of spiders did these things to other human beings? How is it possible that a man injects petrol into another human being? It is not just that there are more cruel people in the world than we would like to think; but also that in each of us there is an element of cruelty that can be harnessed.

'Anti-Semitism built up from lots of small, separate causes. The Jews are doing well. We're unemployed and they're rich. They killed Jesus (that's a very old one). They're ugly. All these come together at a time when the willingness of the German psyche to obey authority was at its highest, and was used by Hitler to that particular end.

'Enough of that, perhaps. But it's central to my life. I have had a wonderful life here and it seems to me a duty to understand what happened there, where but for the grace of God we might have gone.

'In 1936 the four of us came to England. I was 13 when I began at Frensham Heights, a rather progressive, co- educational school with a strong bias towards music; and the school gave me four years of total happiness. It was very welcoming to refugees; a place of freedom, tolerance and happiness. I learnt there to be myself.

'I fell in love in my first year with a very pretty American girl called Christine Collier, who was also 13. I decided I would take her on this mile-long walk round the games field and the forest.'

Deep in reminiscence, he covers his face and scrolls his mind back nearly 60 years. 'I made up my mind that I would kiss her by the cricket pitch, but when we got there I totally lost my nerve. But I was so fixated on this exact location that it was only when I'd walked her round for the third time that I actually kissed her.

'By the end of my time there, when I was 17, we were all in couples and there was endless heavy petting and I held the school record for seven hours at a stretch. What made it particularly exciting was that we were in the stables, lying in the straw with Tom, the horse, looking on, wondering what was happening.'

He laughs. 'Tom the horse] Don't know what he made of it all]'

Is this on the record, I ask nervously, afraid that by now Sir Claus has forgotten my presence. 'Don't see why not,' he says.

'I left school in late 1939 just as the war was breaking out. My father thought I ought to go into business, so in early 1940 I had two interviews. One was with Sainsbury's, and the other with Joe Lyons. They both turned me down because of my German background. I was then interned with my brother and my father. I was only there for three months because at 17 I was under-age. It took the government a long time to release people who were wrongly interned. There were a lot of suicides. We were desperate to get into the war, to fight, and here we were behind barbed wire. It was difficult to fathom.

'I then went to LSE and got rather a splendid degree, and I met Mary, my wife. I thought she was very attractive but in with rather a fast crowd, while she thought I was the most tremendous snob, so we didn't get together till after the war.

'Meanwhile I was dying to 'do my bit' in the war. I decided to go into the Air Force but they wouldn't let me fly because of my nationality - which was terribly hurtful - so I went to the RAF recruiting office, where a vast sergeant said, 'Good-oh, we need people like you as flight mechanics.' They were the lowest of the low, so in late 1943 I went into the RAF as a grease monkey.

'I absolutely loved being part of the war effort, except that for the first time in my life I was very unpopular and I couldn't understand why. I gradually worked out that it was because I was a Mr Know-All. I had never met working-class people before, and they didn't like my cockiness. I gradually cured it, and ended up doing research for Bomber Command at High Wycombe.

'In 1947 I became a naturalised Briton, and from 1946 until 1967 I was an academic rising through the ranks at LSE. I was good at teaching. People liked my lectures. Quite early on I started sitting on outside committees, using statistics to solve problems. I would still be a perfectly good academic, but I got to know Lionel Robbins, later Lord Robbins, and he asked me to be statistical adviser to the Robbins Committee on Higher Education. That totally changed my life.

'I became quite a public figure, speaking everywhere, and in 1964 Harold Wilson asked me to join a planning committee on higher education. And that led to his inviting me to become head of the Central Statistical Office in 1967, when I was 45.

'There followed a decade when I had a terrific time at the centre of power, knowing lots of secrets. I had always wanted to use statistics to illustrate what was happening in the world; above all anything to do with poverty or injustice. Harold Wilson wanted me to improve the use of social statistics, which led to the foundation of Social Trends, now published annually.

'Mary and I have been married for 42 years and in the first 10 to 15 of them I must have been hellish, in the sense that I brought with me the baggage of a typical upper-middle-class Jewish husband who expected his wife to protect him from the children's noise and interruptions. But on a certain morning Mary, being a rather strong character, put her foot down; and after that it got much better.

It is one of my regrets that, having been blessed with a wife, and three children whom I adore, I did not spend more time with them. We often talk about the past, and they wish I had been home in time to read to them. But grandchildren are sheer bliss. My four-year-old grandson calls me 'Grandpa with the big bum' and falls about laughing, and I laugh, too.'

In 1974, aged 52, Sir Claus became Chairman of the Royal Opera House. 'From when I was five years old in Berlin I wanted to be a musician and music has been central at every stage in my life. Whenever I was depressed or over- tired I used to go to a rehearsal or a performance. I have had more happiness in that place than I can explain.

'In 1978, out of the blue, came the offer from Lord Rothschild to join N M Rothschild. My father had always wanted me to be a banker, and I was very flattered to be asked to join this Jewish bank with such a great name. I spent six years there, and enjoyed them very much.'

Did those years make him seriously rich? 'I'm not poor; I've had good salaries, but I have never been rich, and I'm not actually very interested in money. I don't think I have quite the killer motive that one needs to be a really successful banker. I have a house in London and a cottage just down the road from Glyndebourne; a chalet in Switzerland, and a little house in Oxford.'

This, I suggest, sounds rich enough by most people's standards. He says he is not as wealthy as his father was, nor does he live in the splendour that he enjoyed until he was 13 - except perhaps here, in the Warden's Lodgings at Wadham College, which he has to leave in a year's time.

'Of the various careers I've had, my nine years at Wadham have been the happiest of all. I love being with students and in the company of academics.

'What is dangerous in the sort of life I've had is that there are moments when one might think one is indispensable. Balzac said the cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable people. Well, I'll be in one of those cemeteries soon.'

(Photograph omitted)

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