The way we were

First impressions–meetings with Voltaire, Bin Laden, and the Iron Duke
September 18, 2013

George Sand aged 60, two years after she first met the De Goncourt brothers. (© Mary Evans picture library)

James Boswell, aged 24 and on the Grand Tour in 1764, wangles an invitation to meet Voltaire at his house in Switzerland:

“He was all brilliance. He gave me continued flashes of wit. I got him to speak English, which he does in a degree that made me now and then start up and cry, ‘Upon my soul this is astonishing!’ When he talked our language he was animated with the soul of a Briton. He had bold flights. He had humour. He had an extravagance; he had a forcible oddity of style that the most comical of our dramatis personae could not have exceeded. He swore bloodily, as was the fashion when he was in England. He hummed a ballad; he repeated nonsense... At last we came upon religion. Then did he rage. The company went to supper. Monsieur de Voltaire and I remained in the drawing room with a great Bible before us; and if ever two mortal men disputed with vehemence, we did.”

The Duke of Wellington recalls his first and only meeting with Horatio Nelson in a conversation with John Wilson Croker in 1805, six weeks before Nelson died:

“It was soon after I returned from India. I went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, and there I was shown into a little waiting room on the right hand, where I found, also waiting to see the Secretary of State, a gentleman, whom from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm I immediately recognised as Lord Nelson. He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and in, really, a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something that I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of the country... and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman. The Secretary of State [Lord Castlereagh] kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more... A more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw.”

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt meet the novelist Amandine Dupin, better known by her pen name George Sand, for the first time on 30th March 1862:

“On the fourth floor, No 2, Rue Racine. A little gentleman, very much like everyone else, opened the door to us... [and] showed us into a very large room, a kind of studio.

“There was a window at the far end, and the light was getting dim, for it was about five o’clock. We could see a grey shadow against the pale light. It was a woman, who did not attempt to rise, but who remained impassive to our bow and our words. This seated shadow, looking so drowsy, was Madame Sand, and the man who opened. the door was her lover, the engraver Manceau.

“Madame Sand is like an automatic machine. She talks in a monotonous, mechanical voice which neither rises nor falls, and which is never animated. In her whole attitude there is a sort of gravity and placidness, something of the placidity of a ruminant. She has very slow gestures, the gestures of a somnambulist. With a mechanical movement she strikes a wax match, which gives a flicker, and lights the cigar she is holding between her lips. There is not a gleam of light either in the sound of her voice or the colour of her speech.

“Madame Sand was extremely pleasant; she praised us a great deal, but with such... platitude of expression that the overall effect was as chilling as a bare wall. This was banality in the highest degree.”

Robert Fisk meets Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1993:

“Bin Laden sat in his gold-fringed robe, guarded by the loyal Arab mujahedin who fought alongside him in Afghanistan. Bearded, taciturn figures—unarmed, but never more than a few yards from the man who recruited them, trained them and then dispatched them to destroy the Soviet army...

“With his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long brown robe, Mr Bin Laden looks every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend. Chadored children danced in front of him, preachers acknowledged his wisdom...

“Outside Sudan, Mr Bin Laden is not regarded with quite such high esteem... [He] is well aware of this. ‘The rubbish of the media and the embassies,’ he calls it...

“He is a shy man. Maintaining a home in Khartoum and only a small apartment in his home city of Jeddah, he is married—with four wives—but wary of the press... He initially refused to talk about Afghanistan, sitting silently on a chair at the back of a makeshift tent, brushing his teeth in the Arab fashion with a stick of miswak wood. But talk he eventually did about a war which he helped to win for the Afghan mujahedin: ‘What I lived in two years there, I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere,’ he said.