New Times: The Labour landslide

July 7 2024 / The Sunday Times

If narratives shape politics, what is the story Keir Starmer wants to tell about Britian? What kind of story will he craft about the country he wants to lead on “a rediscovery of who we are” as he put it in a short, sombre victory speech outside 10 Downing Street on Friday afternoon. David Lammy, the new foreign secretary, spoke to me recently of the need to accept “the world as it is” not as the left or liberals wish it to be. This is not an idealistic Labour government, as Tony Blair’s was in 1997, when he heralded the beginning of a new liberal progressive era. These are much darker times and Starmer, because of his realism and pragmatism, seems well suited to them.

His achievement cannot be overstated. Since he succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as leader, he has completely remade the Labour Party, which at the end of 2019 was a rotten shell: polluted by antisemitism, controlled by the radical left, rancid with self-loathing, and riven by factions. The Labour MPs I spoke to back then believed the party would be out of power for at least a decade. Would it even survive the new cross-class, pro-Brexit political realignment promised by the Boris Johnson Conservatives, which had won multiple seats in the old Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the north of England?

Consider the scale of Labour’s victory. In one parliamentary term it has gone from its worst general election defeat since 1935 to a great victory and a Commons majority of 172. The Conservatives, the so-called natural party of government, have been routed, punished by voters for years of dysfunction and misrule. The tortuous process of Brexit and the repeated broken promises on levelling up, immigration and much else have broken the party. It seemed fitting that Liz Truss, removed by her own MPs as prime minister after 49 days in 2022, lost her seat.

In Scotland the forward march of the SNP, hegemonic since its resounding victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, has been halted. Support for Labour is broad but shallow in the country and yet it is Britain’s last truly national party: now dominant in much of England, Scotland and Wales.

We live an age of highly volatile politics – the Conservative collapse and the Reform Party surge are testament to that - and Starmer understands how restive the mood in the country is. He spoke outside Downing Street of a “weariness in the heart of the nation”. This was far from the soaring rhetoric of Tony Blair in 1997 who sensed voters wanted to be told a new national story – about an open, dynamic, modernising Britain that would be at the forefront of the new liberal globalisation. Blair was 41 when he became prime minister, a leader glowing with the aura of the young, the liberal-modern, the progressive and the new. Contrast the social atmosphere in the country then with today.

Starmer is 61, the oldest man to become prime minister since James Callaghan in 1976. He is a veteran lawyer and speaks like one. At times, he can sound less like a national leader than a permanent secretary in the civil service: judge me on my commitment to public service! He is a cautious man who has much to be cautious about. His watchwords as he spoke outside Downing Street were dignity, respect, security, stability. All good, sensible words even if certain phrases made him sound like an exhausted survivor speaking at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, harrowed by what had gone before, the chaos that had been, and warning of the need for patience and reconciliation.

During the bleakest period of the Corbyn years and then after the epic defeat in December 2019, when Labour people were despairing, one

man did not accept that the party could not win again after only one term: Morgan McSweeney. He was head of Labour Together, now a well-funded think tank but then an informal advisory group, and a brilliant strategist and campaigner with a background in local government.

He had long been in search of a candidate capable of implementing the plan that he believed would return Labour to power: address the country not the party, purge the left, and build trust on the economy, security, defence and law and order. That candidate turned out to be Keir Starmer, a career lawyer who had entered parliament late, aged 52, but whose politics were fluid and defined by pragmatism, personal ambition and the ability to master a brief.

The plan then for Labour’s return to power pre-existed Starmer: I know because I used to be a guest at Labour Together dinners in London during the Corbyn years and was privy to some of the discussions. But without Starmer it would not have been implemented.

I recall having a cup of tea one afternoon with Starmer and his chief aide, Chris Ward, now a newly elected MP, at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool in 2017. Starmer had resigned from Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet. He had supported Owen Smith in his ill-fated attempt to oust Corbyn in 2016 in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit. I asked Starmer whether, because of Corbyn’s 2017 general election campaign, in which Labour had won 40 per cent of the vote and deprived the Conservatives of their majority, he would now return to the shadow cabinet to demonstrate his willingness to work with Corbyn and campaign for a second Brexit referendum.

He did not answer directly, but I could see from his expression that he was preparing to do just that. He knew that the next leader of Labour, which he wanted to be, would come from inside Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. No perceived enemy of the left could win control of the party at that time of paranoia and division.

One of the criticisms of Starmer was that he had no politics and did not know how to do politics well. He was new to the game. He was not part of the guild of special advisors who had been fast-tracked into safe seats at a young age. His style seemed buttoned-up, passive, ultra-cautious, constricted. He was not a fluent or nimble speaker. What he had, however, were instincts and a particular class consciousness formed by the upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s. His upbringing in a working-class family in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker who worked in a factory, as he likes to remind us, and his mother was a nurse who suffered from chronic poor health – have informed his politics in enduring and interesting ways.

He flirted with radical left politics as a student and young man in London, but his energies and serious attention were always on developing his career (when not playing football). In time he became a leading human rights lawyer and part of the liberal bourgeois metropolitan left but it was not his natural milieu. Even today he has the watchfulness, slight insecurities and instincts of an outsider. He dislikes snobbery and entrenched social hierarchy. He especially despises the insouciance and carelessness of Boris Johnson and his entitled chums.

Starmer observed how uncomfortable his father felt about working in a factory, as if he were embarrassed to be a tradesman. Johnson used to mock Starmer at the dispatch box as a “lefty lawyer” and “Corbynista in an Islington suit” but when Starmer speaks about the dignity of labour he means it.

Because he is not an ideologue, he is also flexible. “Keir is steely, relentlessly hard working, quietly ruthless and meticulous at implementing a strategy,” one of his closest cabinet colleagues told me. He does not trust easily but delegates and listens carefully to those whose guidance he values, especially McSweeney, Rachel Reeves, the new Chancellor, and Sue Gray, his chief of staff. Close colleagues say there is an elusive quality to him, an essential reserve and mystery. He reveals little of who he truly is or what he really feels and is fiercely protective of the privacy of his wife, Victoria (“Vic”), and their two children. But his focus is unremitting and dedication absolute.

“This Tory line that he doesn’t work hard enough is nonsense,” one cabinet colleague told me. “He works too hard! He’s a workaholic. He studies his briefs. He’s deliberative. But in government you need to make quick decisions. He will need to learn how to do that. And he’ll need to start listening to more people.”

Starmer’s top team - Lammy, Reeves, Angela Rayner, Wes Streeting, Bridget Philipson - share a class sensibility. Their early lives were shaped by parental separations, family breakdown or psychological and economic hardship. They were not born into the bourgeois metropolitan liberal-left. They never felt socially at ease as they made their way at university or in their early careers. “I’ve been underestimated all my life,” Reeves said to me. “Keir feels that he is always being underestimated,” one of his aides told me.

Lammy was recently a guest at the Trooping of the Colour ceremonies in Whitehall. He shared a terrace with Boris Johnson, James Cleverly and other senior Tories. But something about the mood unsettled him. “There was a sort of demob happiness about them, a sort of casual frippery, a certain kind of public-school smallness,” Lammy told me. “They are not the class of people that Britain needs to run it now … these people have squandered something. It just spoke of a class of people who have no real sense of the world as it is, whether it is in our own country or the world as we find it today.”

The suggestion is that Starmer’s people are the right class for these times. “We are in a hurry,” Reeves says, after more than 14 years of opposition and having endured the Corbyn civil wars.

But what happens if Starmer’s cautious, incremental style of patriotic social democracy does not create the change he wants? What happens if Reeves’ economic reforms do not generate the growth she promises? What about the forces gathering out in the country that the radical left and the radical right, in their different ways, are seeking to channel?

At his victory speech in Clacton, Nigel Farage, arch disruptor and leader of Reform, the non-party party, or self-styled people’s army, said that he “was coming for Labour voters”. Reform came second in 98 constituencies and won 14 per cent of the vote but has only five MPs. Under a proportional voting system, the party would have had perhaps as many as 90 MPs. The first past the post system conspires against insurgent parties. But can they be permanently suppressed or closed out?

“There is massive change coming,” Farage told me. “Fundamental electoral reform is coming. And with that, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party frankly will barely exist.”

Labour MPs, even as they celebrate their remarkable victory, are already anxious about Reform, the Farage effect and the anarchic forces unlocked by him. And Starmer’s advisors are haunted by the struggles of Olof Scholz, the German Social Democratic Chancellor who also speaks of respect and the dignity of labour but has not halted the rise of the nationalist populist right. He seems destined for defeat at the federal election next year.

Unlike some of his MPs, Keir Starmer is not yet worried about Reform and will not panic. He has an approach and style, a method even, and has asked for patience. His cabinet appointments almost exactly mirror the shadow cabinet: he likes colleagues to know their briefs and prizes stability.

Outside Downing Street on Friday, Starmer began to tell a story about the mood in the country. He spoke of the need to heal wounds and of a weariness in the heart of the nation. At times he sounded like an old-style conservative Anglican clergyman. He needs now to deepen the narrative, not just to tell people who he is and what he wants and believes but to show the country where it is going and what it might become. “I want us to be a young country,” Blair said in 1995. “We will be a young country, equipped for the future with a just society, a new politics and a clear understanding of its role in the world.” That was then.

What does Keir Starmer want Britan to be in 2024 and beyond?

He will need to tell that story before too long.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman

Keir Starmer: The Outsider

May 25 2024 / The Sunday Times

Keir Starmer has been leader of the opposition since 2020 but remains largely unknown in the country. Who is he really and what does he want? You hear that questioned asked a lot.

Starmer is not considered a leftist crank like Jeremy Corbyn, who led Labour to its worst defeat since 1935 at the 2019 general election, but he remains opaque and his personal ratings are poor, much worse than those of the party he is expected lead to victory on 4 July. He is respected by many of his MPs but does not inspire devotion. There are Starmer loyalists in the Parliamentary Labour Party but no followers, intellectual outriders or cheerleaders, no Starmerites.

What are his politics, I’m often asked. Is he a Blairite? A patriotic social democrat in the model of Clement Attlee, Labour’s great reforming leader who as a young soldier was at Gallipoli and was later Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition? A shrewd and ruthless tactician like Harold Wilson? The John Smith of our times?

The truth is he is all of these and none of them. He lacks a coherent politics and follows, as one former aide puts it, “a kind of what works pragmatism, taking each problem and issue as it comes along”.

“The Keir I know — and I’ve known a lot of politicians in my time — really has the most uncanny ability to cut straight to core of the problem,” David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, told me recently when we were together in Washington DC. “I’ve seen him do this right from the start and the fact we are even talking about a Labour government is the result.”

That Labour people struggle to find an appropriate label for Starmer and therefore to locate him in a tradition offers a clue to both his success and essential mystery, his ultimate unknowability. Even when he’s trying to be warm – and he tries - there is a coldness about him, an innate reserve. He does not trust easily, and his closest friends, often old football friends (he has an Arsenal season ticket), are not Labour or Westminster apparatchiks. And he has an aversion to being defined politically. He has a first-rate lawyer’s mind but is not a serious reader or political thinker. I once mentioned John Bew’s excellent biography of Clement Attlee to him but he seemed uninterested.

By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, who was supremely intelligent and deeply interested in history and ideas, once pulled FA Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty from her handbag, as the story has it, and declaimed: “This is what we believe!”

Starmer has no such book or philosophical lodestar.

He served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet until the very end and ran for the party leadership from the left. Many of the ten pledges he made back then – including the nationalisation of public services and open-ended tax rises on the rich - would have fitted well in Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour election manifesto, the so-called longest suicide note in history.

The left loathe Starmer for his equivocations and supposed betrayals but his positioning for the leadership was tactical: no enemy of Corbyn or the left would have won control of the party at that point. Starmer’s campaign manager, Morgan McSweeney, a brilliant strategist and now campaign director, understood this and the plan was always to move to the centre. Or, as McSweeney would have it, where the voters are.

The Tories will concentrate their attack on Starmer’s untrustworthiness and the way he jettisons his pledges and policies. But that won’t bother him because power is the “object of the exercise”, as he says, and the project, as he told his biographer, Tom Baldwin, is to return Labour “to the service of working people in working-class communities”.

To understand Starmer better, then, consider him an outsider. He is not a red prince like the Miliband brothers or Hilary Benn: his father was a toolmaker, who “always felt undervalued because he worked in a factory”, and his mother a nurse, who suffered from chronically poor health. Nor is he a product of the Labour Party like Rachel Reeves, who was marked out as a future chancellor of the exchequer as a young economist at the Bank of England and nurtured accordingly, or the trade union movement like Angela Rayner.

He is not a member of what George Osborne calls the “guild” of professional politicians, the bright young men and women, invariably Oxford PPE graduates, who start their careers as special advisors and are fast-tracked into safe seats. He has not “worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor” as the former Tory MP Nicholas Boles once said of his old friend David Cameron.

Starmer came late to Westminster politics, aged 52, having been a civil liberties lawyer and, for five years until 2013, director of public prosecutions (DPP). And from the beginning his ambition was clear: he wanted to be prime minister.

“I’ve got to do Kinnock and Blair’s job in one term,” Starmer told me over breakfast in a near-empty restaurant in central London in the summer of 2021. Labour was trailing abjectly in the polls after the Covid pandemic and Starmer was struggling to define himself and be heard. But he knew what he had to do: reform the party and return it to the moderate centre-left, or centre, as Kinnock did while still losing two general elections, and then win, as Blair did so emphatically in 1997. And all in one term. Good luck with that, Sir, I thought as we parted.

And yet something has stayed with me from that encounter – a sense of Starmer’s complete self-belief. This guy thinks he’s good, not just good but better than the rest. What does he know? I have often wondered. What does he see in himself that others don’t?

In Washington, Lammy spoke to me about the desolation he felt during the long Labour civil war, from 2015-19. He recalled standing outside parliament protesting against what had happened to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. “It was one of the lowest periods of my political life,” he said. “One of the reasons I co-chaired Keir’s leadership campaign was because I knew he would clean us up and get rid of antisemitism. He would change Labour.” (Starmer’s wife, Victoria, or “Vic”, a former solicitor, is Jewish; they have two school-age children and attend the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood.)

Starmer has cleaned up Labour. And yet, in many ways, his range is limited. He’s not charismatic or a compellingly fluent speaker like Tony Blair. As he prepared for power, Blair had a vision for the country he wanted to lead and told a story about a “new” Britain that under his leadership would be modern, progressive, meritocratic, optimistic, open to the world. He wanted nothing less than to bring about a shift in national consciousness. “I want us to be a young country again,” he said in a 1995 conference speech, by which he meant unburdened by the past and unconstrained by “the forces of conservatism”.

Starmer doesn’t think or speak like that. He does not believe progress is inevitable as Blair does: it must be fought for and defended. On social and cultural matters, he is a liberal but not an ultra-liberal. You could call him a pre-woke progressive. On crime, defence and security, he is a soft authoritarian. His worldview is darker and more pessimistic than Blair’s. Like Lammy and Reeves, he is a foreign policy realist who believes the world is what it is and not what many on the left believe or wish it to be. He will not be soft on defence and security as Rishi Sunak claims.

Starmer has done many things well since becoming Labour leader, not least attempting to banish the scourge of antisemitism from the party and, after a false start, empowering Reeves to lead on economic policy. But he lacks political imagination and makes mistakes. His initial response to the war in the Gaza, especially his hapless LBC interview, enraged his party. The fall-out continues and those Labour MPs with large Muslim minorities in their constituencies fear the election campaign will be nastier and more toxic than it might have been before George Galloway returned to parliament after winning the Rochdale by-election. “The Gaza war and Keir’s handling of it have been a disaster for us,” one senior Muslim Labour MP told me.

Despite his flaws, Starmer’s cautious, pragmatic style seems well suited to these times. His instincts are conservative, he retains a class consciousness rooted in his working-class upbringing and he and McSweeney are ruthlessly focussed on voters not Labour activists. He and Reeves know that the era of open borders and free-market globalisation championed by Blair and the Cameroons finally died on the battlefields of Ukraine. Are they prepared for what comes next as the world is remade around geopolitical risk and threats of war?

At the 2019 general election Labour was routed in many of its former working-class constituencies in the Midlands and north of England, the Red Wall heartlands. A new cross-class, pro-Brexit coalition carried Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to a landslide victory. Labour was broken and lethally divided. What some thought was a permanent realignment of British politics proved transitory, however. Labour is poised to win again.

But reaching 10 Downing Street is easier than staying there through governing well as Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak know to their cost. For Keir Starmer, therefore, the most demanding test of political leadership is yet to begin. Is he ready and are we ready for him?

John Tavener: sacred music for a secular world

February 14 2024 / The New Statesman

On Christmas Eve I had the good fortune to be present for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Faraway, in the Holy Land, war raged in Gaza and the churches of Bethlehem were closed. At one point, as the choir sang the hymn “The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap”, my eyes filled with tears. I had a similar experience last weekend during a performance of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil at Saffron Hall in the old Quaker town of Saffron Walden in Essex. The solo cellist was Guy Johnston, with the violinist Thomas Gould leading the unconducted Britten Sinfonia chamber orchestra, and together they held the audience in rapt and solemn attention.

Saffron Hall is located on the campus of Saffron Walden County High School and has a world-class programme of events and concerts: on a visit there last November, I saw a virtuoso performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.

“I’m sorry there is no encore,” he said at the end while praising the exceptional acoustics. “But the aria is its own encore.”

I have seen The Protecting Veil performed live before but never with Steven Isserlis, at whose request the piece was written, as the solo cellist. It takes its inspiration from the moment Mary, the Mother of God, is said to have appeared before worshippers at the Blachernae church in Constantinople during an all-night vigil in the 10th century. The apparition inspired the besieged Christian Greeks to withstand an onslaught from Saracen marauders and it was felt as if Mary had wrapped her protecting veil around them.

Began as a much shorter work, The Protecting Veil is in some ways an accidental masterpiece. Tavener was asked by Isserlis to write a 10-minute piece for cello and strings, capturing the purity and simplicity of Christian Orthodox church music. During its composition it deepened into something longer and more complex: a full cello concerto.

Born into a Presbyterian family in 1946, Tavener, who was a music scholar at Highgate School and later studied at the Royal Academy of Music, converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church in his thirties and his spiritual music restlessly seeks after the eternal. “I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God,” he said.

The Protecting Veil is both ecstatic and contemplative. With its chant-like austerities and melodic repetitions it is a kind of extended prayer. Tavener called it an attempt “to make a lyrical ikon in sound”: devotional music that was “highly stylised, geometrically formed and meditative in character”. It premiered at the 1989 BBC proms, before a half-empty Royal Albert Hall in London: Isserlis was the solo cellist and received a rapturous standing ovation that late summer evening. The applause has never stopped. His subsequent recording of The Protecting Veil topped the classical charts and, improbably, was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 1992; a later Tavener work, from 1993, Song for Athene, was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral.

Johnston, who calls Isserlis his mentor, says it “takes quite some stamina” to perform The Protecting Veil. “The cellist is playing in the stratosphere for much of the time.” The listener is taken on a journey, mostly serene. But there are also moments of disruption and abrupt shifts in register and tone; in one section, a long lament, it sounds as if the solo cello is in mourning for a broken world.

With his long, receding hair, deep tan and loose-fitting white clothes, Tavener, in photographs, looked as if he’d just returned from a long summer holiday in Greece. Perhaps he had. He was famous and he was rich. And there remained something of the old hippy about him even into older age. In the Sixties he’d known John Lennon and his “dramatic cantata” The Whale, from 1966, was released on the Beatles’ Apple label.

Some have mocked his spiritual music as conforming to a genre of “sacred minimalism”: he is grouped with Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki, both composers I like. But Tavener was no pseud. He was utterly sincere and endlessly questing. Much of his adult life was blighted by extremely poor health: he suffered from Marfan syndrome, had a stroke aged 36 and several heart attacks. He endured debilitating abdominal pain. Perhaps he longed for the eternal so intensely because he knew just how fragile and vulnerable we are. “Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way,” he said. “Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got.”

Christianity, wrote the philosopher Bryan Magee, a self-described agnostic, in his monograph The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, was a form of “anti-art”: “The alienation of man against his own nature, especially his emotional nature… the devaluation of life and the world and hence, inevitably, their wonderfulness … all this is profoundly at odds with the very nature and existence of art.”

Magee, a Wagnerian and sensualist, was right about much but wrong about this. More and more, in recent times, I find myself listening to sacred music, not because I am religious but because it unlocks something deep within - a longing for transcendence, perhaps, or what Philip Larkin, in “Church Going”, calls a hunger in oneself to be more serious. After his stroke my colleague Andrew Marr, who is not a believer, found consolation through listening to Bach’s cantatas and reading religious poetry. Confronted by the “possibility of sudden death”, he had sought solace in religious art or art inspired by religion.

Why does the secular mind seek out the sacred, often at moments of heightened stress or torment? What is it we feel we are missing or, more accurately, seeking? What is this absence for which we yearn but of which we cannot speak?

For Magee, Christianity venerates death over life: it promises what is to be is greater – more fulfilling, more truthful – than what is. And yet, for the secular mind, death is the absolute end. But it’s death that ultimately gives meaning to life: definition, a telos. Through contemplating the ever-presence of death in life, although it is not an event in life – Larkin writes of the tense, musty, unignorable silence he senses while alone in an empty church - we may learn to live. Or at least to live better.

On Monday 11 November 2013, John Tavener appeared as a guest on Radio 4’s Start the Week, presented by Andrew Marr. Alongside him were John Drury, chaplain of All Souls College and the author of a biography of the poet-priest George Herbert, and Jeanette Winterson, the novelist who grew up in an evangelical Christian family in Lancashire. Tavener discussed his recovery from heart surgery, having spent six months in intensive care, and of his feelings of abandonment: “I couldn’t sense the idea of God anymore, I couldn’t sense any music. Everything vanished.”

As his strength slowly returned so did his religious conviction and faith in his ability to compose. But the music he wrote was now more concentrated, terser, spare. His way back to God had been to write music. “Music and believing in God have always gone together,” he said. The next day he died at home in Dorset. But the music is imperishable.

Tennis: the end of a Golden Era

July 2 2023 / The Sunday Times

The era of the Big Four - Federer, Nadal, Novak and Murray - is ending. What comes next? And will tennis sell out to Saudi Arabia?

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Wootton Bassett: The Town that Wept

March 16 2023 / The New Statesman

​Mourning the fallen soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

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The Last Man: Surviving the Morecambe Bay Tragedy

March 19 2022 / The Times


Richard had night sweats and bad dreams. In these dreams his

feet were submerged in quicksand and he could feel himself

sinking. Or he was up to his neck in water. Or his lungs were

filling with water. Sometimes he saw a woman on a foreshore, in

a long, dark coat, her face covered by a scarf, and she was calling

out to him as he walked across the sands. Sometimes he woke

with the word ‘mother’ on his lips and would find his wife asleep

beside him and the house quiet. He was sure, in these recurring

dreams, a woman had called out to him in a warm, familiar voice,

but not his wife, and she’d used another name, his real name. He

never used to be called Richard. He used to be called Li Hua, and

this is his story.


Li knew very little about England before leaving his home village

in China, beyond what he’d read about and seen on television –

and yet he already made of it in his imagination something

magnificent and welcoming. When he thought about England, he

imagined a light shining as if from a city on top of a distant hill.

In the early negotiations with Mr Chang, the local gangboss who

was part of a network smuggling Chinese workers to Western

Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, Li was told the journey

would take only a few weeks and that, at the end of it, he would

be guaranteed work in a factory or restaurant. He would be reunited

with his wife as soon as he’d found somewhere of his own to live

in England, he was told. The gang – Li called them ‘snakeheads’

– demanded an initial cash payment (the equivalent back then of

£10,000) and it was explained to him that he would be going via

Moscow, and from there he would fly direct to London. Further

payments would be required in the months ahead, and the full

debt would have to be repaid when he was settled in England.

To fund the first payment, Li borrowed money from his uncle,

who had borrowed money from a cousin. A man who worked for

Mr Chang had taken Li’s passport because, he was told, he would

need a visa to enter Russia. One morning Li received a one-way

train ticket to Beijing; the time of his departure was close. He felt

uneasy the night before he left the village in Fujian Province, as

if he had an emerging fever. He was reluctant to leave his wife

and their young son behind on the farm, with only his parents

and siblings to support them. But he knew if one day he and his

wife were to have more children of their own, as they wished, and

if these children were to have a better life, he had to go.

On the morning of his departure, Li held on to his wife for a

long, silent time. She was crying and he wiped the tears from her

face. He kissed her on the forehead and pulled her into a tight

embrace. He recalled this last, warm embrace in the lost, lonely

months that followed.

+ + +

When he arrived in Beijing, Li was greeted by a sullen, officious

woman who spoke briskly in an unfamiliar dialect. She said he

would stay in the city for several days until his visa was approved.

He was now part of a group of twenty other workers, all from

Fujian Province – ‘the Fujianese’ as they were known – and they

were all on their way to England. They were taken to a hostel,

where they slept and ate and were free to come and go. Within a

few days, the visas arrived and the Fujianese travellers boarded the

Moscow flight.

One of the other Fujianese immediately took control when

they arrived in Moscow led them smoothly through immigration

controls and, on the other side, to a car park where there were

several vans waiting. They were ordered into the vehicles and

their passports and money were taken away. They were driven to

a low-rise apartment block on a Soviet-era estate in the suburbs

of Moscow, what Russians call the sleeping districts of the city.

There Li would share a room with twelve others in the subdivided

block. They were given duvets, water bottles, coffee and cigarettes,

but there were no beds or pillows; they slept on the concrete


Europeans and Russian-speaking men controlled the house.

Most of the time they smoked, drank beer and vodka, talked on

their phones or watched pornography, football and other sports.

When the windows were closed, the smell inside the rooms was

rancid and at night Li was kept awake by the sound of coughing,

snoring and groaning – and sometimes by the sound of men who

cried in their sleep and then said nothing. One Chinese woman

in the house told him she’d been raped; she left the room one

evening and returned many hours later with her face swollen and

bruised. She was inconsolable when Li reached out to her. ‘Please

no, please no,’ she said.

+ + +

For the next several months, stretching into the summer, Li Hua

remained in Moscow, in the same room, in the same block. He

spent slow, empty days fantasizing about escape. The residential

apartment block had a shabby courtyard and they were allowed to

sit in it or walk around it; sometimes the room in which they slept

was locked from the outside, and Li would stare at the walls, willing

his mind to empty. During this period, he was convinced one of

the Fujianese men in the house had died; no one said what

happened to the body. He felt ashamed at his passivity and help-

lessness. When he complained, he was told he was free to go, but

where would be go? ‘Once you’re in, you are in,’ Mr Chang had

said to him. ‘There is no way out until you’ve paid the money


+ + +

One morning Li and some other men at his breakfast table –

breakfast was served in sittings of six – were told to pack their

rucksacks and prepare to depart: they were going to Ukraine.

They set off in vans later that evening and Li slept fitfully

for much of the long journey. Some time the next afternoon they

stopped close to a lake in what was presumably Ukraine. They

were given water and sweet biscuits and ordered to follow their

guides across fields and over hills. Carrying rucksacks, they

walked for several hours until they reached a road junction,

where several trucks were parked, apparently waiting for them.

The white European drivers never looked at their faces or into

their eyes. From there, after more hours on the road, they arrived

at a derelict farmhouse, where they stayed for at least another

week. Each day they were given a single baguette, some hard

cheese, coffee or sweet tea and a bottle of water, and each night

they slept on the floor in a small, fetid room. At night, Li heard

mice or rats scurrying beneath the floorboards and in the rafters


The next stage of the journey required Li and another Fujianese

man to get into the boot of a large car; they were covered with

blankets. They were told not to make any noise or to speak because

they would be crossing the border into Slovakia.

When they stopped, many hours later, and the boot was opened,

they were told they’d arrived. ‘We made it!’ one man said.

+ + +

They were given water and more bread and sweet biscuits and

soon afterwards were on the move again. Their next stop was some

kind of hostel, and they were given rice and fruit to eat. There

were no beds, however, and they slept huddled on the floor in a

narrow upstairs room, where there were more Chinese men already

waiting, introverted, subdued. On two occasions, they were driven

in small groups to the distant German border but it was considered

too dangerous to cross, and so they reluctantly returned.

After so long away from home, Li felt dejected and deeply

humiliated. ‘I did not want to carry on, and yet I had no choice

but to carry on,’ he said. He had no passport or identification

papers, no money, and he was in debt to the gangmaster back

home in China. He never knew for sure which country he was in

– Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany . . . Sometimes

when he could not sleep because of the heat and humidity and

the noise, he withdrew into his own memory palace and wandered

among its rooms. He pushed at doors and they opened on to

different scenes from his life: at school, on the farm, alone with

his mother, in bed with his wife.

As the weeks passed, he was allowed to go for short, supervised

walks. He could occasionally use a mobile phone to make brief calls

to his family in the village. These were charged at one dollar per

minute and were strictly monitored. Li was given a pre-prepared

statement to recount: there had been a ‘realignment of expectation’

and the overland journey was taking ‘much longer than expected’

because they were working to pay their way. He listened helplessly

as his wife pleaded for him to come home, to give up; during one

call he heard his mother crying in the background and his father’s

agitated voice. ‘Ask Mr Chang about England,’ Li said. ‘Ask him about

my job.’ And then the line went dead, as it always did after a few

minutes, as if a switch had been flicked or a cable cut. The next time

he spoke to his wife, she said that Mr Chang wanted another payment;

it was overdue. ‘I will send more money,’ Li said, and his wife asked

him to come home. ‘Why are you doing this?’ she said.

+ + +

One afternoon Li and two Fujianese workers were squeezed into

the back of a car; they were on their way to another hillside loca-

tion, close to the German border. After another drive they were

led by guides through dense woodland until, at the roadside, they

saw two parked cars. ‘Welcome to Germany,’ one of the Chinese

drivers said, in English, using a faux-American accent.

They were taken to a house on a residential estate; inevitably

it was full of more Chinese workers. Li was given some green tea,

white rolls and vegetable soup, and was then sent to wait in an

upstairs room with many others. One of the men started beating

his fists against the door when he heard it being locked from

outside, demanding to be let out. And perhaps he was heard because

not long afterwards police officers arrived at the house. It seemed

another trap had been set for them.

The workers were rounded up and transported in groups to a

detention centre, and so began another period of idleness and drift.

Li adapted to the new routine and rituals of life inside the centre:

regular hot meals, exercise in the grounds, a pillow and proper

bed to sleep on. He had his hair cut, he saw a dentist and doctor,

he began to feel less exhausted and slowly he gained some weight.

His lips stopped splitting. The metallic taste of blood in his mouth

faded. Once a week he was allowed to call his wife at home in the

village. Some mornings he woke early and forgot where he was or

what had happened, and then he remembered.

Li’s debts were accumulating. How safe were his family in the

village? If he escaped, or tried to escape, if he did not pay or could

not pay, or never returned, or even died, would they be hurt – or,

worse, killed?

One afternoon, during a meeting with a German official, Li

was told he would be released the next day but must leave Germany

immediately. The official did not care where he went as long as

he left the country. He was given a number to call, some euros

and identification papers. That same day Li received a call at the

centre and was told he would be collected early the next morning

by a Chinese-speaking driver.

The next morning the man arrived, as had been agreed, and

Li was driven to a bus station. He was instructed to take a long-

distance bus to the Netherlands; someone would collect him on

the other side of the border.

Li was in Western Europe now, the man said; people could

move freely and borders could be crossed easily, no questions asked.

He would be all right.

He was on the move again, passing through towns he would

never know, through countries to which he would never return.

His mother, a devoted Catholic, had impressed upon him from a

young age that he must pray, and every day now Li prayed. He

believed his mother was praying for him too, though she knew

nothing of his real plight. What sustained him? It was this: he

believed he was surrounded by a protective wall of prayer. Nothing

could break it down or break him down.

In Holland he was taken to another house, where he was greeted

by more Chinese men just like him, lost, emaciated, some of them

stinking and sick. At the end of each day, the gangboss in the

house would tell them what to do next and what they should expect.

From Holland they moved to Belgium and then to France, in small

groups, in small rooms, bearing the mark of men’s smudge and

sharing men’s smell. Li did not know these fellow travellers, but

he knew he was getting closer. You are close to the end now, Mr

Chang, or someone claiming to be him, had said.

He’d been travelling for a year, perhaps longer, and though he

prayed dutifully, as his mother would have wished, Li was spiritually

exhausted and profoundly alone. The journey will only take a few

weeks, he had been told back in China. Sometimes he recalled what

his father used to say to him as they worked together on the farm

– that he must be independent, that he must strive to live a good

life. Protect his son. Don’t beg, his father had said. Never beg. Don’t

expect. Don’t give in.

He had not given in.


The final phase of the journey was across the sea, across the English

Channel; Li was very close now, closer than he’d dared imagine when

he was at the German detention centre and resigned to being deported

to China. One evening he and a group of Chinese men from the

house in France where they’d been staying – fifteen of them – were

waiting by the side of the road close to a port. In his pocket, Li carried

a piece of paper he’d been given by the gangboss, on which was

written an address in London’s Chinatown, his final destination.

On this occasion, as they waited at the roadside, a large

canvas-covered truck pulled up. A ladder was dropped down from

inside and a Chinese man jumped down and urged Li and the

others to climb in, quickly, without hesitation. As the last of them

was ascending the ladder, the truck abruptly shunted forward; the

last man clung on to the ladder, his legs dangling like a trapeze

artist’s, before he fell. As the truck pulled away, Li peered at the

forlorn figure in the road, receding from view. He was on his knees,

beating the road with gloved hands.

Inside the truck, amid the crates and wooden pallets, Li felt

something like relief, if not yet hope, because already the truck

was shuddering to a stop. He could hear voices outside, and

reasoned they were at the border. The men murmured to one

another inside the truck; they’d been told to huddle together

beneath the blankets left inside for them. ‘Quiet now,’ one of them

whispered, as the canvas covering was pulled partially open from

outside; torchlight pierced the darkness and Li closed his eyes and

held his breath.

The check was merely cursory and soon they were moving

again, the throb of the engine keeping Li awake as they travelled

through the night. It was getting colder inside the truck – the men

huddled together like children for warmth – and he imagined ice

forming on the walls and even in the tangles of his hair.

Did the driver know the cargo he carried?

+ + +

It was light outside the next time the canvas covering was pulled

back, and there they were, revealed, in all their helplessness and

vulnerability. Someone shouted, ‘Run!’ – and they did, chaotically,

in different directions. It was another trap. Li had been told to look

out for the white cliffs and green fields of England. There were no

white cliffs or green fields. The men were rounded up and taken

by uniformed officials to a nearby detention centre, where they

were photographed, interviewed and fingerprinted. Li stayed there

for two days and nights, and, when he wasn’t being ignored or

fed, he was asked, through a translator, where he was from and

what he planned to do in England. What did he want and expect?

Why had he come? Li kept saying the same thing: he wanted to

work and had a job in London.

On the third day, Li was released, with new British identification

papers – name, age, country of origin. He was given a phone card

and a permit that allowed him to travel on a train to London. He

was on the move again.

+ + +

Chinatown was not a town: just some pedestrianized streets, crowded

with people, the hustle of traders and tourists, many languages

spoken, shoppers all around. Buildings were decorated with Chinese

symbols – dragons and lanterns – and Li could read the street signs

because they were written in Mandarin, as well as English.

The address he’d been given turned out to be the location of a

small, multipurpose supermarket. A Chinese man received him

warmly, and without surprise, introducing himself as Mr Wei. ‘I’ve

been expecting you,’ he said. They talked for a while about Li’s

journey; Mr Wei said he had shown ‘great fortitude’ and that he

should worry no longer because there was good work for him ‘in

the north’. Li would have his meals provided and share a house with

other Chinese workers in Liverpool. He was given a coach ticket,

the address of the house in the city and some money so that he

could pay for a taxi when he arrived. Perhaps for the first time since

leaving the farm, Li felt something close to happiness. ‘I am here

now,’ he said. Mr Wei rested a heavy hand on his shoulder, in reas-

surance and friendship. ‘God bless you my good man,’ he said.


The room in the terraced house in the Kensington area of Liverpool

was much like all the others: cold and damp, foul-smelling, locked

windows, frayed carpets, rotten floorboards, everyone sleeping on

the floor. The workers shared one putrid-reeking bathroom in

which the lavatory water ran black. There were cluster flies crawling

on the windows but so sluggish were their movements that it was

as if they craved only extinction.

Some of the workers in the house were also from Fujian

Province but there were other men from the north of China. They

all worked as cockle-pickers.

The next day, Li was driven from the house to Morecambe Bay

on the Lancashire coast. ‘Welcome to the office,’ the foreman said

as the minivan pulled up in the village of Hest Bank. By now, it

had been explained to Li exactly what was required of him in his

role as a cockle-picker and that it would take most of the day, from

morning light to early evening darkness, to fill just one of the

orange nylon bags he’d been given with cockles. These were small

edible saltwater clams found buried in sediment. In Morecambe

Bay the cockles were not dredged but hand-picked, as they had

been for centuries, and they were sold in bulk as seafood, especially

to continental markets.

Li had never encountered a landscape such as this before and

he surveyed the vast flatness of the bay. He recalled images of the

limitless empty spaces of the Gobi Desert and wondered, again,

how he’d ended up here, by the sea, on these sands, in winter.

This is not how he’d imagined England: isolating, crushingly cold,

so alien. He looked towards the distant hills but there he saw no

shining light to encourage him.

Li was given a pay-as-you-go mobile, waterproofs to wear, a

black beanie hat with an LED light attached, as useful in the winter

darkness as a miner’s Davy lamp was underground, and boots. He

pulled the beanie down tight over his ears against the hardness of

the weather: the ripping winds, squally showers and the oppressive

cold. Each worker was given a short-handled rake and Li was shown

how to use it to sift the sands, extracting the cockles when he could

find them, and being moved further along when he could not. But

mostly he found it easier to dig in the dirt with his bare hands as

he worked in the area of the bay around Warton Sands. He was

fascinated by the bilaterally symmetrical heart-shaped shells of the

cockles, firmly closed and ribbed to the touch, and wondered how

the fleshy substance inside would taste.

Through the day his back ached as he scrambled and raked for

cockles; he was convinced permanent damage had been done to

his lower spine from travelling in car boots on unmade roads, and

working on the sands only made the pain more persistent.

By mid-afternoon, it was already getting dark, and yet they were

being urged further out across the monotonous flatness of the wet

sands, following the retreating tides, with the fells and the moors

beyond, and the lights of the surrounding towns visible in the

gathering distance.

+ + +

Chinese workers had started appearing on the sands the previous

year. Local fishermen received them with suspicion and hostility

and controlled certain key sites, forcing the despised Chinese

pickers further out into the bay in search of more distant cockle

beds. What was peculiar, in retrospect, was that local people had

seen the cockle-pickers come and go, they knew they were out

there, but the authorities chose not to see them. They were just

shadows on the sands.

Morecambe Bay has the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats

and sandflats in the United Kingdom and is the confluence of four

principal estuaries: Leven, Kent, Lune and Wyre. The sands are

submerged at high tide, and when the sea is out in the bay they

are crosscut with continuously shifting river channels. These chan-

nels, combined with treacherous quicksands, deep hollows and

fast-moving incoming tides, are why there has been an official

Queen’s Guide to the Sands since the sixteenth century. Every

twelve hours and twenty-five minutes the tide comes in at a rate

swifter than a galloping horse, as the locals say.

Before the Furness railway link opened in 1857, crossing the

sands at Morecambe Bay estuary provided the most direct route

from mainland Lancashire to North Lonsdale (now part of Cumbria).

The journey by horse and carriage was hazardous. There were

drownings and disasters. In 1847, nine young people were returning

from a fair in Ulverston to Cartmel when the fisherman’s cart in

which they were travelling overturned in a hollow. The water closed

in and everyone drowned.


They had stayed too long on the sands. Now the tide was rushing

in and Li was being ordered back to the minivan. Water was surging

along deep channels, isolating the cockle-pickers and cutting them

off from the foreshore. They hurried towards the van as the driver

was attempting to start the engine. He turned the ignition but it

did not move: the wheels spun and churned in the mud. The water

was rising fast as they clambered into the van; the foreman, sitting

beside the driver in the front passenger seat, started shouting

obscenities, his panic palpable. The driver thrust the gears into

reverse and pressed down hard. The engine roared but the wheels

did not turn.

Li could see nothing because of the darkness but he could feel

the pressure of the rising water outside. Someone opened the doors

and seawater surged into the vehicle: dark, salt, hard, cold. Li forced

his way out and attempted to climb with some of the others onto

the roof. But he fell back into the water and tried to wade-push

against the currents, but they were too strong and he tumbled

backwards. Salty water flooded into his mouth and lungs. He

resurfaced, gasping. He found he could stand again, his head and

shoulders above the water-line. He held his mouth tightly shut and

reached for the phone in his pocket but it was saturated and

wouldn’t switch on. People were screaming around him, and one

man was desperately shouting in English: ‘Sinking water . . . Many,

many sinking water . . .’

Li removed the waterproofs that were weighing him down, and

the clothes beneath. He had no idea in which direction to start

swimming. Towards the lights that ringed the bay, but which ones,

and where? He tried to swim, but was hit by a wave, turned on

his back, and swept along in a channel of rushing water. This was

it . . . he came to rest on a raised bank and, with incredulity and

relief, felt the ground beneath his feet again. Firmer ground, much

firmer. He could stand without immediately sinking into the sands.

He stumbled, waded, and then simply stood still, breathlessly, the

water seething all around.

He couldn’t see the vehicle, nor hear human voices. The faraway

street and house lights seemed as remote and meaningless to him

as the impossibly distant light from dead stars. He thought about

his mother and how she used to pray every day and how she’d

urged him to do the same. He prayed, but he felt forsaken. He’d

been in England for only a few days. And this was his first day as

a cockle-picker, his very first day of work on the sands.

Why would God do this to me?

He’d always done as he was asked. He’d followed his father’s

advice – work, don’t ask, work, don’t beg. Was this his reward? To

die in the sea: the shame of it. Perhaps he’d died already, and yet,

even if this was the end, he could find nothing hopeless in having

lived. He felt as if he were already mourning the end of his own

life. He remembered something, from somewhere: In the midst of

life we are in death.

He believed his mother’s spirit was with him in the water. She

would look after his wife and their child, he knew that. His mother

was praying for all of them. The hope he had carried in his heart

like fire all the way on the trans-European journey was dissipating.

The near-naked man sank to his knees in the freezing water . . .

but hold on . . . there was brightness, a radiance that lifted him.

In the black sky above, he heard a loud disturbance, the sound of

something harshly mechanical, the thwack-thwack-thwack of what

he realized was a low-flying helicopter, its searchlights probing the

seething waters. He waved his hands and shouted out but it was

pointless – he could not be heard above the wind and the noise

of the engine. The helicopter circled above, pulled away, but

returned, its searchlights scanning the water in a restless arc. His

mother was praying.

Li jumped up and down, his arms outstretched and held aloft,

as if in manic celebration. There was a golden halo of light – he

was saturated in this light – and he felt a sudden, all-enveloping

warmth, as if a safety blanket, or heatsheet, had been wrapped

around his bare shoulders.

‘I thought I saw God in the water,’ he recalled. ‘The feeling at

that moment is very hard for me to explain. I was alive again.’


One summer afternoon in 2010 a human skull was found half-

buried in the sands near Silverdale on the Lancashire coast by a

guide leading a group of walkers across Morecambe Bay. Teeth

were taken from it and DNA tests confirmed that it was the skull

of Liu Qin Ying, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who, together with

her husband, had drowned when they were trapped by incoming

tides on the sands of Morecambe Bay on the night of 5 February

2004. They had been searching for cockles far out on Red Bank,

two and a half miles from the foreshore near Bolton-le-Sands. Their

thirteen-year-old son, Zhou, who had remained in southern China,

was orphaned that night.

Liu Qin was one of seventy undocumented immigrant Chinese

workers staying in four rented houses in Kensington, Liverpool.

She and many of the others had been smuggled in on a container

ship; triad-affiliated gangs moved them from the Liverpool docks

to the houses they controlled. One of Liu’s fellow workers, Guo

Bing Long, a former subsistence farmer in China, made at least

two phone calls as he struggled in the water. First, he called his

family in Ze Lang village, San Shan town, Fuqing city; his wife

and their two infant children, a son and an adopted daughter, were

asleep and he spoke to his parents. He told them he was up to his

neck in the sea and he asked them to pray for him. Next, he called

the emergency number 999; a female operator answered. The call

was recorded and, when you listen to it, you can hear people crying

and screaming as Guo Bing Long, in desperation, shouts, in

English: ‘Sinking water, many sinking water . . . Sinking water,

sinking water . . .’

After receiving the harrowing call from their son, Guo Bing’s

parents woke his wife and together they waited for another call

which never came. Guo Bing Long was twenty-eight when he died

and, after his body was recovered, family photographs were found

in his well-worn wallet and a white metal cross around his neck.

A year later his mother committed suicide.

Most of the cockles were picked and processed for export to

European countries and the Chinese workers were paid as little as

£5 per 25 kilos of cockles picked – or more accurately raked –

scandalously below the market rate. Many of them were from rural

or coastal villages in Fujian Province and their motivation for

risking their lives was to work and send money home to their

families in China. On the night of the disaster the leader of the

gang, Lin Liang Ren, a Chinese national who lived in Liverpool,

the so-called gangmaster or gangboss, had ignored warnings from

local fishermen about the severe weather forecast and imminent

high tides.

Morecambe Bay locals know all about the dangers – the sudden

tidal bores, the submerged channels, the quicksands – and that

night the Chinese workers were trapped by fast-rising tides in the

winter darkness. The workers were islanded, far from the foreshore,

and the water just kept on rising around them. ‘The tide crept up

behind them,’ recalled Cedric Robinson, the long-time official

Queen’s Guide to the Sands. ‘You can’t hear the tide out there

when there’s a wind. They were circled, there was nowhere to run.’

Later a second group of Chinese cockle-pickers were found

huddled together on the foreshore. Like their unfortunate colleagues,

they were carrying forged fishing permits and had been issued

with fake national insurance numbers. Among the group was Lin

Liang Ren, the gangmaster, and his closest associates. During police

questioning, Lin and the workers each initially told the same risible

story: that they were on the foreshore for a picnic, in the darkness

of deepest winter. It quickly became obvious to detectives that Lin

Liang Ren was not one of the abused: he was in control and the

others were terrified of him.

A Royal National Lifeboat Institute hovercraft searched the

sands the next day and, eventually, what was described as a ‘sea

of bodies’ was discovered. Twenty-three Chinese workers drowned

or died from hypothermia that night, including the foreman who

led the way across the sands and had slept in a separate room at

the house. The last man alive in the water was thirty-year-old Li

Hua, and he was rescued after being located by a search helicopter’s

thermal imaging camera. He was naked above the waist and

standing in water on Priest Skear, an expanse of raised land, covered

at high tide. Skear: from the old Norse ‘sker’, meaning rock in the

sea. Li Hua’s survival was described locally as the ‘miracle’ of the

sands. ‘The Devil’s beach’ was how one Chinese newspaper

described Morecambe Bay in the immediate aftermath.

+ + +

The inquiry into the tragedy was the largest ever undertaken by

Lancashire Constabulary. DNA samples were collected and taken

by police to southern China so that they could be matched with

relatives of the dead. The cockle-pickers were paid in monthly cash

payments which were deposited in high-street bank accounts. Most

of the money was transferred to accounts in China as debt repay-

ment. The workers were left with very little for themselves and

their families, which forced them to work even longer hours,

sometimes at night.

Lin Liang Ren was convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter

and served six years of his sentence before being deported to China.

The court was told that he had ‘cynically and callously’ exploited

the cockle-pickers and played the tables at nearby casinos while

they laboured on the sands. His much younger girlfriend and a

cousin were also convicted of breaches of immigration law and of

perverting the course of justice. His cousin’s pregnant English

girlfriend, Janie Bannister, from Merseyside, gave evidence against

the gang; on the night of the tragedy she’d called the coastguards

to alert them to the unfolding disaster. ‘I’ve got a lot of Chinese

boys in Morecambe Bay,’ she said, ‘and they are stuck because they

are cockle-pickers. They have to get out . . . The water, it’s around

their waist.’

Among the ‘boys’ were three women.

Early in the investigation some of the Chinese workers from

the second group found huddled on the foreshore disappeared

from an asylum centre. They were tracked to London’s Chinatown

but there the trail went cold. The police slowly won the trust of

some of those who did not flee, however, and they began to open

up about their ordeal.

Li Hua, the lone survivor, gave evidence at the trial, under a

witness protection scheme organized by Paul Francis, a now-retired

detective sergeant. Li spoke in court from behind a screen so that

he could not be identified. Paul believes that more than twenty-three

Chinese workers might have died in the water that night. ‘The

prosecutions were based on the number of corpses discovered,’ he

said. ‘There could have been more. They were illegal immigrants;

we had no idea how many were in the country.’

Before the Morecambe Bay investigation, Paul Francis had

arranged witness protection for killers (‘the people who pulled the

trigger first’) and members of organized crime gangs. Li Hua and

the cockle-pickers from the second group were different. ‘They

were good people,’ he recalled. ‘They wanted legal work and to pay

their taxes. They didn’t want to come to Britain to rip us off. For

Li, living on pennies a day at home, it was a simple business

decision. He could come to the UK and work for ten to fifteen

years and with the money he earned he could build five houses in

Fujian Province. For him, the cost of coming to the UK was £30,000

– he thought he could make that in nine months. The main focus

was to repay the debt. They have to pay half up front in China and

the other half over a period. That’s why they couldn’t walk away

– if they don’t repay the debt to the snakehead gangs, their family

in China will get it. They’re captured. They are slaves.’

Paul asked me if I knew Morecambe Bay and I said that we

had family living nearby in Silverdale and that, even on benign

summer days, we’d always approached the sands with extreme

caution and humility.

‘In summer,’ he said, ‘you can stand in the middle of the bay:

you’ve got the peaks of the Lake District, this beautiful expanse of

water, you’ve got a promenade that’s just been modernized, a nice

art deco hotel – to look at, it’s beautiful. And yet every day these

gangs of Chinese were coming in and the whole community just

ignored it: the police, the local authority, health and immigration

services. There were hundreds of them. Why did we allow it to

happen? We all knew they were there. Why didn’t we do something

about it? It seems to be the British way: until someone thumps

you on the nose, you don’t sit up and take notice.’

The police investigation was led by Mick Gradwell, also now

retired. ‘The crime scene was 120 square miles, there were vehicles

and bodies and evidence in Morecambe, Liverpool and elsewhere,’

he said. ‘I’m a Lancashire lad, used to dealing with crimes in

Lancashire, not international organized crime gangs and human

trafficking – it’s not what you expect, not on the landscaped shores

of Morecambe Bay. You’re thrown into investigating international

organized crime gangs, snakeheads, triads, international human

trafficking. We dealt with the people who were responsible for the

deaths on the night. But we did not make any dent into these wider

criminal gangs who traffic people around the world.’

Gradwell explained how the gangs operated in ‘plain sight’:

‘Tens of thousands of illegal Chinese workers were living in

England,’ he said. ‘Building up hidden communities and building

a life below official recognition. It was horrifying to discover what

was going on in this country.’

In 2003, Geraldine Smith, the Labour MP for Morecambe and

Lunesdale, wrote to the Home Office warning of the danger the

‘currents and quicksands’ posed to migrant workers in Morecambe

Bay. In a perfunctory reply, a Home Office minister said immigra-

tion services had too few resources to investigate. Too few resources:

we would hear this refrain, or excuse, again and again, in the years

to come, as one of the most pressing moral concerns of our times

was simply wished away: mass migration, legal or otherwise.


One morning, during the pandemic, Li Hua and I had a long

conversation. He still lives in the UK, runs a restaurant and owns

a house in which he lives with his wife, two grown-up children

and one grandchild. His original dreams of England have been

fulfilled, but not in ways that he could have ever imagined. He

speaks little English and so also joining us on a Zoom call were

Irene, a translator, and Paul Francis, the retired police officer who’d

organized Li’s witness protection and created a new identity for


Li has returned to Fujian Province only once since 2004; he

recalled that, when he used to work on the family farm, his father

would give a large proportion of their produce to the state as a

form of taxation. ‘Everything has changed now in the village and

farmers don’t have to pay the food tax,’ he said with a chuckle. It

was only in 2012 that he finally repaid the outstanding debt to the

gangmaster in China.

Li, Paul and Irene had a lovely, relaxed intimacy: the mutual

trust was hard earned. Li was reluctant to use Zoom because he

was suspicious of downloading software onto his laptop. At one

point, his wife appeared alongside him and waved into the camera.

‘Hello, hello everyone!’ she said.

‘Paul has treated me so well, given me so much support, mental

and physical,’ Li said. ‘He helped bring my wife and child to

England, and took care of us as we got to know the people, the

climate, the life. Paul is always in our hearts.’

Li was wearing a black leather jacket, a low-necked black T-shirt,

and his hair was spiky and cut severely short above the ears. He

was physically much heavier than when he was lifted from the

water that night, emaciated, traumatized, suffering from hypo-


‘Li, it’s good to see I’m not the only one putting on weight in

lockdown!’ Paul quipped, and we all laughed.

Li dreams often about that night in the water – the terror he

experienced and the hopelessness. He has panic attacks and night


He spoke directly to, and through, Irene, who could not always

understand what he was saying because of his dialect.

‘The horror is imprinted on my mind and I can’t get rid of it

totally,’ Li said. ‘I have many, many nightmares. I’m trying my best

to forget. I try every day not to let it bother me, to bother my work.

But the shadow is always there: it keeps bothering me. I didn’t

realize I was the only survivor until I was in the ambulance later

that night. I asked about the others. Where were they? What had

happened to them?’

They were searching for them, he was told.

The Chinese foreman had led them out on the sands and

demonstrated how to rake for cockles. ‘We were not warned about

the tides, never once,’ Li said. ‘We were exploited by the snakeheads.

I understand they wanted to make their money, but they should

have shown humanity. We have our families too. We were promised

proper legal work. We never expected to end up on the seashore

picking cockles. When one is desperate, hungry, lack of sleep, you

will take any job to escape from hunger and a restless mind. They

exploited our weakness: we were not familiar with English law.

Our fate was in their hands. We had nobody to depend on, we

knew no one who could speak for us. We were under their control.

I’d just arrived the day before. I desperately needed to find work

to fill my tummy. In Liverpool I found the house and was given

food and a blanket: we all slept on the floor. I was sick the next

morning – but sick or not sick, you just had to pick the cockles.

The more we pick the more we can earn. The tool was not efficient.

Each bag must be as full as possible with cockles, right to the top,


Li’s tone darkened. ‘They should have carefully watched the

time, the tide table, the sea. They should have told us in advance

when the tide will be high. They should have prepared us.’

I asked about his vision of God, the halo of golden light in the

water, and Irene stopped translating and lowered her head as if

distracted by something. There followed silence. She removed her

spectacles and lifted a handkerchief to her face, wiping her eyes

and nose. I realized she was crying and, for a while, no one spoke.

Li moved slightly to one side so that most of his face was now

obscured from the camera. He lowered his head and raised his

hands to his eyes: he too was crying, but silently. After a long

pause, he talked about what he had hoped for.

‘In my dreams England was beautiful and big,’ he said. ‘Peaceful

and friendly.’

He had thought about little else but the forthcoming journey

as he worked on the farm in China. It wasn’t escape he sought

from the drab, repetitive tasks in the fields or from his family – his

parents, three siblings, his wife and their young child – but rather

a more secure and prosperous future for all of them. ‘I knew

England is democratic system,’ Li said, speaking through Irene.

‘People are protected to live in peaceful and respectful environment,

citizens have freedom to speak. Police will catch the bad guys.

Everyone can find a job they can do. Or wish to do. My wish was

to live in a country like England. I was determined to make that

wish come true. Our village was so poor, finding work to survive

was nearly impossible. Our house was damaged and the farm could

not keep us all surviving. The soil was bad, worn out. I was told

by snakeheads I would have a job if I worked hard. If I’d stayed

in China, been stuck in China all those years, we would be a bunch

of miserable, unhappy people depending on a tiny farming income

to feed our unhappy, miserable family.’

But perhaps he had suffered too much.

‘Had I known I’d be in that horrible accident in Morecambe

Bay, would I have left? No. I would not have come. But now I feel

blessed. Fate brought me to England and kept me alive in the

water. When I was picking cockles, before the water came in, I

promised to myself I would one day find my own job, without link

to snakeheads.’

He looked directly into the camera, leaning forward just a little.

‘And, you know, I did that.’

Li Hua often thinks about other victims trafficked into slavery,

suffering in plain sight as the cockle-pickers did. He mourns the

dead whose stories briefly become news whenever their bodies

are discovered in lorry parks or in sealed containers, or when they

fall from the undercarriage of an aircraft. He thinks of all the

nameless people he shared rooms with and crossed borders with.

He thinks of those he slept alongside in the room in Moscow and

the room in Liverpool – the people who died on the sands. Even

at his most despondent, Li believed he would reach England and

would one day be free – until that night, when everything seemed


Then he saw God in the water.


The Morecambe Bay tragedy is a parable about borders and about

loss – of home, of identity, of agency. It is also a parable about

wilful blindness: from Blair to Cameron, the governing elites of

Britain turned away from the effects of uncontrolled migration and

the exploitation of people by traffickers and smuggler gangs, as if

they wished they weren’t happening. As national leaders they knew

they lacked control – or were losing control – but rather than

levelling with the public, they kept on making bogus promises

about capped net migration targets and British jobs for British

workers. Under their leadership Britain became embroiled in

foreign wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – while other more

pressing domestic matters were neglected. They equivocated while

Nigel Farage agitated and mobilized his people’s army.

By the time of the Brexit referendum, uncontrolled migration,

modern slavery, the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second

World War and legitimate freedom of movement within the EU

were wilfully conflated by the hardest Brexiteers and their media

cheerleaders to create a kind of moral panic. Anti-immigration

sentiment energized the most toxic extremes of the anti-European


The year of the Morecambe Bay tragedy was also the year in

which ten new countries joined the European Union; eight had

been part of the former communist Eastern Bloc, the so-called A8

(accession eight), the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia,

Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Of the existing member

states in 2004, only the UK, Sweden and Ireland chose not to

impose ‘transitional controls’ restricting incomers from the A8


The New Labour government’s provisional forecast was that as

few as 5,000–13,000 migrant workers per year would arrive in

Britain from Eastern Europe. In the event, over the next few years,

with Germany, France, Italy and Spain imposing the maximum

seven-year transition controls to restrict freedom of movement,

more than a million Eastern Europeans came to Britain. Annual

net migration rose inexorably. By 2012, there were estimated to be

700,000 Polish people alone working in Britain. Bulgaria and

Romania joined the EU in 2007, and this time the New Labour

government imposed seven-year transitional controls on the two

new accession states. By 2019, 427,000 Romanians were reported

to be living in the UK.

The economic crisis in the eurozone and sharply rising youth

unemployment in southern Europe were also push factors driving

large numbers of European workers to Britain, which – because

of its flexible labour market – became what the writer Helen

Thompson calls ‘the employer of last resort’ for the EU. All the

while, the population level was rising sharply. In 2021 official

figures revealed that, from 2012 onwards, net migration was in

fact 43,000 higher each year than official estimates had said.

‘Britain 2004–2019 is a textbook case of how to lose public trust

on migration,’ the political scientist Matthew Goodwin has written,

because for many voters, particularly those who voted Leave, immi-

gration ‘seemed to encapsulate the failure of a remote political

class to respond to their concerns’. The unanswerable question is

this: had the Blair government introduced transitional controls in

2004, would Brexit have happened?

‘We live in a world in which people move more easily between

countries than at any time before,’ wrote Ivan Krastev.

And it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish

between migrants and refugees. In a world defined by

rising wealth inequality between states and within states,

where social media enables people to peek at the ways even

the most distant others live, migration has become the new

revolutionary force. This is not the twentieth-century

revolution of the masses, but a twenty-first-century exit-

driven revolution enacted by individuals and families . . . A

simple crossing of the border into the EU is more attractive

than any utopia.

+ + +

In 2000, George Walden, a former diplomat and Conservative

government minister, published New Elites: A Career in the Masses,

a polemical book examining what he considered to be the liberal

populism of the New Labour years. A revised edition was

published during the pandemic. According to Walden’s updated

figures, ‘In 2004, the non-UK-born population was 5.3 million.

By 2018 it was 9.3 million – just over 14 per cent of the total

population – of whom 3.6 million were from the EU and 5.7

million from outside.’

Resentment was concentrated among those most likely to suffer

directly from immigration, whether economically or from pressure

created on housing, schools, the NHS, or among older people

unsettled by rapid demographic change.

‘BBC managers helped bottle up discontent by avoiding discus-

sion of the issue on the corporation’s news programming,’ Walden


Repressed anger frequently focused on Muslims, whether

for cultural or racist reasons or fears over terrorism, and

because non-EU migrants were the majority. Hence a huge

paradox. In the 2016 referendum many voted Leave in the

belief . . . that Brexit would stem immigration from all

sources. In this sense Dominic Cummings’ slogan to ‘Take

Back Control’ from Europe was a lie: Britain controlled

non-EU migration.

This is true but, as we have seen, the desire for ‘control’ was about

much more than the issues most people associated with Brussels.

It was about loss – the sort of loss experienced by my aunt and her

friends in Potter Street, Harlow, and in many other small towns.

In 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives had been elected on

a manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to less than 100,000

a year. It was an unrealistic, and dishonest, target. Cameron knew,

just as Gordon Brown knew before him when he pledged in his

first conference speech as the new prime minister to create ‘British

jobs for British workers’, that it could never be achieved under

freedom of movement and residence rules – a cornerstone of the

European citizenship bestowed upon citizens of the EU’s member

states by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

When the treaty was signed, Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch prime

minister and one of its architects, was convinced the British pro-Eu-

ropean elites were not being honest about what greater EU

integration entailed. ‘It was as if the makers did not dare to tell

the truth,’ he said.

+ + +

In the years after Maastricht, the arrival of many hundreds of

thousands of Eastern Europeans in Britain was welcomed by the

business community as a net benefit to the economy; most of

them were working and paying tax. ‘But it evidently benefited

some more than others: employers more than workers; the middle

classes more than the working classes,’ wrote Robert Tombs.

‘Between 2005 and 2007, 540,000 incomers found jobs, and

270,000 British workers lost them. For many people, this was the

most tangible consequence of EU membership, and larger

numbers started voting for the United Kingdom Independence


None of this was inevitable. Not only could successive British

governments have reduced immigration from outside the EU, they

could have raised wages and reformed the labour market, which

was far more flexible than in any other EU member-state, as well

as introducing restrictions on residence (as in Germany or France).

This, coupled with improved vocational and technical training,

would have reduced the substantial demand for skilled labour from

the EU. UK governments had scope for action that they chose not

to use.

In 2003, David Goodhart published an essay titled ‘Too Diverse?’

in Prospect magazine, of which he was founding editor. The essay

explores how in the author’s view greater diversity had undermined

social cohesion and solidarity in Britain and he argued that too

much immigration was weakening the consensus on which

redistributive welfare capitalism depended: the so-called progres-

sive dilemma. Without reciprocity and shared obligations, there

could be no stable social contract.

After the Morecambe Bay tragedy, Goodhart’s essay was widely

discussed; it was also misread as an anti-immigration diatribe.

It was not. What it did was raise questions about the conflict, as

Goodhart later explained, between rapidly increasing diversity

and the solidarity and trust required to sustain a generous welfare

state. A divide was growing between younger liberals, who

embraced the opportunities of globalization, and conservative-tra-

ditionalists who feared its destabilizing effects. These do not have

to be opposing sides and should never have been allowed to

become so.

‘My essay was not an essay on mass migration,’ Goodhart

recalled. ‘It was, rather, a tentative exploration of the boundaries

of people’s willingness to share in modern welfare states.’

In 2016, after the vote for Brexit, Goodhart published a timely

book, The Road to Somewhere, in which he described a binary divide

in society between ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’; between a highly

educated and mobile group who valued autonomy and diversity

and who dominated our politics, and a more rooted, less well-

educated group who valued security and familiarity. Somewheres

‘feel that their more socially conservative intuitions have been

excluded from the public space in recent decades’, Goodhart wrote,

and this resentment has ‘destabilised our politics and led to Brexit

and Trump’.

Nigel Farage is by temperament and lifestyle an Anywhere and

yet he paradoxically mobilized Somewheres to his great cause.

Through his blokeish banter and relentless, single-minded deter-

mination he did more than any other politician to create the

political conditions for the European referendum. He too considers

the year 2004 to be a significant turning point in the story of

modern Britain: EU enlargement and the failure to impose trans­

ition controls resulted in the largest unplanned migration in British

history and, inevitably, a populist backlash.

‘The European Union and immigration had ceased to be an

issue before 2004,’ Farage told me. ‘It was the mistake of letting

in the former communist countries. Many in UKIP said to me,

“No, no, don’t do that, you mustn’t do that. They’ll call us all the

names under the sun.” I knew that touching the immigration issue

was going to be very difficult. But I think the impact that had on

me, the family, all of that was bad. And frankly . . . the only thing

that upsets me about it is that, had it been wilfully and overtly a

racist message, I might have deserved some of it. But it wasn’t. It

never was. It never, ever was. For me it was a logical argument

about numbers, about society and control.’

Behind the scaremongering and xenophobia was a material

reality of everyday hardship and neglect that Farage and his allies

exploited and rival politicians from the two main parties ignored

or simply wished away. From 2010 onwards, people’s anxieties

about immigration were compounded by stagnant wages, spending

cuts which weakened public services – primary schools, maternity

units, doctors’ surgeries, libraries, social care, and the public realm

– just as the population was rising fast. By the time of the

referendum, annual net migration was running at 330,000. That

David Cameron chose to hold it during the 2015–16 European

refugee crisis merely reinforced how detached this smoothly insou-

ciant, risk-taking, self-confident charmer was from the realities of

most people’s everyday lives. Michael Portillo, a former Conservative

minister and a Brexit supporter himself, described Cameron’s

decision to call the referendum, and then to lead such a compla-

cent campaign, as the ‘greatest blunder ever made’ by a British

prime minister.

Migration was ‘the new revolutionary force of the twenty-first

century’, Ivan Krastev wrote and Cameron’s premiership would be

swept away by it.

It was as if the makers did not dare to tell the truth.

+ + +

If the story of immigration from 2004 to the Brexit referendum

was one of political mismanagement, false promises, missed targets

and careless disregard for public opinion, Brexit and the end of

freedom of movement have led to a cooling of the immigration

debate. But another world most of us would rather not think about

continues to thrive – the world of the smugglers and their victims.

Trafficked people are everywhere around us, labouring in plain

sight – in high-street nail bars, ‘Thai’ massage parlours, textile

factories, restaurant kitchens, sweatshops, warehouses, and abat-

toirs. Or they’re lost in the shadow economy, in marijuana farms

and brothels. Some of them are dying, without passports or iden-

tity papers, without dignity, as the cockle-pickers did in Morecambe


Pham Thi Tra My was a twenty-six-year-old woman who was

found dead alongside thirty-eight other Vietnamese people, aged

between fifteen and forty-four, in a refrigerated lorry container

parked at Purfleet Docks in October 2019. Two people-smugglers,

from Romania and Northern Ireland, were found guilty of thirty-

nine counts of manslaughter; two lorry drivers were also found

guilty of illegally conspiring to transport Vietnamese migrants from

northern France to southern England.<

John le Carré: The Secret Life

December 12 2020 / Salt Publishing (republished New Statesman)

In the end, the great spy novelist remained an enigma even to himself.

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George Orwell: The Road to Revolution

December 4 2020 / Macmillan Publishers

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Political Football

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A Summer Without Cricket

June 6 2020 / New Statesman

The silence of a Covid summer

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Covid-19 and Mortality Salience

April 29 2020 / New Statesman

​The possibility of post-traumatic growth

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Letter from Sandhurst: Mission Command

February 2020 / New Statesman

Can you teach the art of leadership?

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The English Question

November 27 2019 / New Statesman

If Brexit is an English revolt what will happen to England after Brexit?

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Mark Hollis: The Sound of Silence

February 27 2019 / New Statesman

​A musician of extraordinary depths

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VS Naipaul: The king of literary rootlessness

August 13 2018 / New Statesman

Not since Conrad had a novelist so completely absorbed himself in the shifting complexities of his age, or written more sharply about the dark places of the world.

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England Rising: stretching the flag

July 4 2018 / New Statesman

How the World Cup and Gareth Southgate’s young, diverse team reawakened a sense of progressive English nationalism

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New Town Blues

April 1 2018 / Granta

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The Lost Boy

May 11 2017 / New Statesman

​Richard Beard seeks to uncover the truth behind a long-ago family tragedy

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The fall of the golden generation

September 15 2016 / New Statesman

What happened to the best and the brightest of New Labour?

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AE Housman: Nostalgia and the spirit of England

August 20 2016 / Financial Times

AE Housman has been dismissed as a minor poet and he is not currently on the school curriculum, but to read A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 short interlinked poems, for the first time is, I think, to encounter one of the strangest, saddest and most affecting works in English literature. In this poetry of fond remembrance and painful loss, young men — “lads”, Housman called them — invariably die prematurely or are betrayed in love. The setting is rural Shropshire, in deepest, faraway England, but “heartless, witless” nature does not console or redeem, even as it beguiles and tantalises. For this is a godless pastoral and the only constant in these poems, for all the pleasures of their lyric intensity and ironic refinement, is death.

The biographer and critic Peter Parker’s elegant and absorbing Housman Country is less a formal biography than a book about legacy and about how one writer’s work, specifically A Shropshire Lad, has resonated or “vibrated” through the decades, acquiring new meaning and relevance for each subsequent generation. It is also a book about England and Englishness and, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, one of deep interest and relevance.

A Shropshire Lad was published, after what Housman described as a period of “continuous excitement”, in 1896, when the author was a 36-year-old classics professor at University College London. Parker’s contention is that, even if you haven’t read the book, you are probably already familiar with it. You might well have heard some of the poems set to music by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two composers who were fundamental to the revival of English classical music and did so much to preserve English folk songs.

You are likely to be familiar too with some of the most celebrated phrases from the poems, such as “blue remembered hills” and “the land of lost content”. These and others have entered the language and inspired any number of literary and popular writers and musicians, from Morrissey to Dennis Potter and Colin Dexter, the creator of the mournful Inspector Morse.

“It is the paradox of his life,” GK Chesterton wrote in a biographical study of William Cobbett, “that he loved the past, and he alone really lived in the future.” Something similar could be said of Housman, the austere classical scholar whose outward reserve and forbidding personality disguised hurt and vulnerability that found expression only in his poetry — a poetry that was future-harrowed and death-haunted just as his studies were backward-looking and past-fixated.

After reading A Shropshire Lad, the American poet Robert Lowell said that Housman “foresaw the Somme”. How else to account for the morbid preoccupation with doomed youth? During the first world war it was said that Housman’s book was in “every pocket”, as if the young men volunteering for or sent to the western front saw something of themselves in Housman’s lost lads.

In “On the idle hill of summer”, Housman writes, for instance, of “Soldiers marching, all to die”. He continues: “East and west of fields forgotten/Bleach the bones of comrades slain,/Lovely lads and dead and rotten;/None that go return again.” Housman was, says Parker, “the supreme elegist of and for his age”, which is why his poetry continues to mean so much to so many.

But it’s not just the prescience of the poems that’s so striking. It’s something more than this, something to do with their unity of place and time and evocation of the rhythms of rural life. It is as if for Housman the true spirit of England resides in the countryside.

This is surely why his work appealed so deeply to poets Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke, both young patriotic volunteers killed during the first world war and both romantically concerned with what Parker calls “dreams of England”. Fortunately, while exploring these dreams, Parker resists making too many generalisations about national identity, though he lapses when suggesting “emotional self-denial [is] thought characteristic of the English race”. He evidently hasn’t spent much time in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night.

Alfred Edward Housman was born in 1859 in Worcestershire, the eldest of seven children of a country solicitor. His mother died when Housman was only 12 and, though he grew up in a religious family, he claimed to have lost his faith at Oxford. Housman was a brilliant student and would become the outstanding classical scholar of his generation, first at University College London, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, and yet he failed his finals.

There were suggestions that he was brought down by intellectual arrogance and was bored by the rituals of examinations, but my sense is that his failure is also likely to have been the result of emotional distress. As an undergraduate he fell desperately in love with Moses Jackson, a fellow student and champion sportsman, who was heterosexual. The experience dislocated him and destroyed his peace of mind. Many years later, in 1933, Housman delivered a public lecture at Cambridge in which, uncharacteristically, he offered some insight into his own creative process. Writing poetry was “generally agitating and exhausting”. He discussed the effect some lines of poetry had on him and quoted from one of Keats’s last letters in which he said of his beloved Fanny Brawne, from whom he was soon to be eternally separated by death, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear”. Was Housman thinking of Moses Jackson as he wrote this?

Unrequited love is of course one of the perennial themes of lyric poetry and a sense of love thwarted or love lost gives Housman’s poetry much of its emotional charge. Philip Larkin called him “the poet of unhappiness”. Certainly Housman’s poetry, with its homoerotic subtext, is fatalistic about love: it’s as if sex and death are, for him, inextricable. Or, at least, there can be no true love without suffering.

We know very little about Housman’s sex life: Parker is restrained on the subject. What we do know is that long after Jackson had married and emigrated with his wife first to India and then Canada, the two men continued to correspond and Housman would send him poems.

“I suppose many a man has stood at his window above a London square in April hearing a message from the lanes of England,” wrote HV Morton in a book titled In Search of England cited by Parker. The narrator of A Shropshire Lad has heard this calling or something like it and, from his exile in London, never ceases yearning for the “happy highways” of his rural childhood to which he can never return, just as Housman never ceased yearning for Moses Jackson.

Housman is a notable absence from Ferdinand Mount’s English Voices, a selection of literary and political review-essays published over the past 30 years. In his introduction Mount attempts to impose a semblance of thematic unity (the English are an “amphibious mob” and so on) on what is, in effect, a work of miscellany. The English, Mount says, are proud of their “mongrel heredity”. And his English voices include WG Sebald, a German who lived in East Anglia and wrote in German; Germaine Greer, a raucous Australian who is a long-time resident of the Essex hinterland; and VS Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian heritage who has the mannerisms of a haughty lord of the manor and is the author of some of the most distinguished books published since the war.

Mount’s natural idiom is Oxbridge high table. He has an easy, unforced familiarity with the great books. He knows the history of these islands well enough. He uses the first person singular, but unostentatiously, so that he is never more than a bashful presence in these pieces. His own English voice is learned, wry, insouciant, superior. He is unafraid of emotion, telling us which writers move him to tears (Keats, Wilfred Owen), and he is good on the lives of politicians — especially William Gladstone, Robert Peel, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, for whom he worked.

Mount is a baronet, a cousin of David Cameron, and belletrist. He has laboured at the rock face of Parnassus without ascending its peaks. But he is no mere well-heeled dilettante — because, as an essayist, memoirist, novelist and polemicist (The New Few, his 2012 counterblast against oligarchy and runaway globalisation, was widely noticed), he is serious about the writing life. He deserves greater recognition, and these essays, best read in batches rather than in one concentrated period as I did, offer a good introduction to an urbane, if essentially old-fashioned, writer.

JD Taylor, who is 27 and has “no Oxbridge credentials and well-connected kin”, has written an account of the four months last summer he spent exploring Britain. Island Story is informed by the spirit of Cobbett’s 1830 Rural Rides, that great work of social criticism. On his travels Taylor rides his bike, camps or stays at hostels, listens hard to those he meets and takes notes. He travels erratically but reads astutely. He is leftwing but not too preachy.

He is a good companion because he has an original mind. But he knows too that he is travelling around a country that might soon cease to exist, at least as a single polity.

Great Britain, the most successful multinational state in history, has never seemed more fragile, destabilised by its disunities. The House of Lords is out of time. Many Scots are outraged that they will be dragged out of the European Union against the will of the majority. The English are increasingly restive, especially beyond the metropolis. England and Britain were once interchangeable. No more. “If independence means a rejection of greedy and dishonest Westminster politicians … ” Taylor writes, “then it is hard to see which regions beyond southern England might vote to remain part of the UK.”

For Taylor, “disappointment” defines the British experience. He says it is “the prevailing feeling I encountered in others”. For Ferdinand Mount the dominant tone of English discourse is not disappointment but “one of regret, of nostalgia rather than self-congratulation”. For Peter Parker, “melancholy and nostalgia are present from the very beginnings of English literature”.

This is persuasive. Orson Welles, discussing his film Chimes at Midnight, said: “There has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer … You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all through Shakespeare.”

You feel this nostalgia for an older, lost England all through Housman as well. It is part of his enduring appeal, and no matter how many times you read him you cannot help but surrender to the plangent sounds of his sad music.

The rise of the new young fogeys

June 13 2016 / The Times

A couple of years ago, during editorial meetings, I began to notice that several of my younger colleagues were wearing smart watches and fitness trackers that monitored how many steps they took in a day and hours they slept at night. I was so intrigued that, for a couple of weeks, I wore one of these devices until I realized it told me nothing I didn’t know already – that I walked more than enough most days and had little trouble sleeping.

But after this, I began paying closer attention to what my colleagues were talking about, particularly the younger ones on the web desk. They seemed to live differently from how I did at their age. A couple had personal fitness trainers or had taken up running seriously. One of them worked standing up, like the American novelist Philip Roth, who at least had the excuse of a bad back. Sitting down, I was told, was the “new cigarettes”. Another seemed to drink nothing but green tea.

My colleagues aren’t exactly allergy-obsessed, health geeks, like “Deliciously” Ella Woodward, but they mostly live cleanly. Some of them have quit drinking alcohol. None of them smoke (not that I ever did). Dairy products are generally viewed with suspicion. One of them has become a vegan.

In addition, they’re seriously agitated about the unfairness of the housing market, which they feel is rigged in favour of the old. They are irritated that Baby Boomers and Generation X had all the benefits of the post-war welfare state, including free university tuition.

Already burdened by student debt, many of my young colleagues and their friends graduated into the Great Recession and have been making their way in a time of austerity when wages are stagnant (earnings for those in their twenties have not increased in real terms in almost 20 years).

Now you might say that these smart, mostly Oxbridge-educated, politically engaged young journalists are not the most representative group, and I would agree – “too Hampstead and not enough Hull”, is how Andy Burnham, that estimable philosopher of the Left, might put it.

What’s striking about this millennial generation is just how socially responsible they seem – I’ve called them the New Young Fogeys in a Radio 4 Analysis programme I’ve just made. The statistics back this up. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, this could be the best-behaved generation of young people since the rebellions and upheavals of the 1960s.

More than a quarter of young adults in Britain today are teetotal (among Londoners that figure rises to a third). Teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections have fallen markedly, not least because young people are much better educated about sexual health (whereas STIs are rising among the over-45s who are also more likely to drink alcohol at least five days a week).

Millennials are smoking less and drinking less. Statistics suggest they are committing fewer crimes. Drug use is down. They’re having children much later – the average age at which a woman has her first child has passed 30 for the first time.

Something about young people’s attitudes and social behaviour has changed and continues to change – for instance, truancy among school children is at a record low.


One recent morning my BBC producer, Katie Inman, persuaded me to return to my old sixth-form college in Harlow in Essex, to talk to students there about their lives. Harlow was one of the new towns established after the Second World War and it could be rough, yet it felt like a good place to grow up.

I went to one of the town’s eight comprehensives – there were no selective academic grammar schools – and life there was often chaotic. You found yourself in classes of more than 30 children, some of whom could scarcely read.

There was no sense that you were being prepared for university and then one of the elite professions; rather, in retrospect, it was more a matter of getting through the day and avoiding fights, which I managed to do by being street-smart and a good talker. I spent most of my time playing football, reading the NME and listening to pop music – Bowie, the Specials, Japan, Joy Division/New Order.

My friends and I weren’t delinquents but we did get up to a lot of mischief, and my greatest aspiration in late adolescence was to be in a pop band, even though I never bothered to learn an instrument properly or sing well. What I liked doing was posing – and dreaming of doing great things.

My old sixth-form college is now part of Anglia Ruskin University. It has become a serious institution and the students I met were sober and astute. They were shocked when I told them what the college was like when I was there – like something out of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, staffed mostly by bohemian radicals.

During my very first A-level English lesson, one of the students asked if he could smoke. The teacher, a bearded poet manque, assented, and then five or six others promptly lit up as well and continued to do so in every class afterwards. In the afternoon, we went not to the library but to the local pub.

A pattern had been established. Soon enough I stopped turning up for lessons before dropping out altogether, which meant a couple of years later I did my A-levels in nine months flat while also working as a lowly clerk at the Electricity Council in London.

Still, my parents were kind and I enjoyed myself – and scarcely worried about the future or how I might earn a good living. I always had a sense that everything would turn out just fine, as it did, and the state was benevolent – as a university student, from 1986-89, I signed on during holidays and there were no loans or tuition fees to concern me.

By contrast, the students I met in Harlow were restlessly preoccupied with the near future – with exam and job anxieties as well as all the pressures, they told me, that come with being a socially networking. None of them smoked or drank much or scarcely ever went to a nightclub. They fretted about what they called their “body image”.

They objected to being called boring but conceded that they were, like my NS colleagues, fogeyish in outlook and behaviour – because, as one 18-year old said, “social and financial pressures had made them so”.

Are millennials too self-obsessed, narcissistic even?

They are certainly level-headed, anti-utopian, debt-chastened and realistic about their life chances, if also a little too conformist. And they’re always fiddling with their wretched smart-phones, taking selfies, and over-sharing the intimate details of their lives.

If this millennial generation seems more cosseted and anxious than mine was, they also seem much less free. We had the freedom to make mistakes and the luxury of knowing that the welfare state would catch us if we fell. You could even, from time to time, fall down drunk without any fear of being photographed and shamed on social media. I guess it was easier being young in the 1980s. It was probably more fun too.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. His Analysis documentary,
The New young Fogeys, is on Radio 4 tonight [13 June] at 8.30pm

The spy who became John le Carré

October 31 2015 / The Financial Times

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) the aged spymaster George Smiley is recalled from retirement to investigate whether there is a double agent, or “mole”, operating at the highest level of the intelligence service, which John le Carré calls the Circus. Melancholy and unhappily married, Smiley is drawn back reluctantly into a crepuscular world of secrets and subterfuge, where nothing is quite as it seems and even long-time friends cannot be trusted.

Making slow progress in his investigation, Smiley returns to Oxford — his “spiritual home” — to see a former colleague, Connie Sachs, who is an expert in Soviet counter-intelligence and renowned for her prodigious memory. In the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor, the first episode of which was broadcast in 1979, a few months after the election of Margaret Thatcher, Connie is played by Beryl Reid and Smiley with fastidious, low-toned deliberation by Alec Guinness, in one of his most celebrated roles. Their conversation takes place in near darkness, in a room lit as if by candles, like the setting for some venerable college feast.

Connie has lived through the postwar decline of Britain, which Mrs Thatcher came to power determined to arrest. She tells Smiley that her “boys”, as she calls the public school, Oxbridge-educated group with whom she used to work at the Circus, have lost their way: “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.”

In many ways, le Carré is an elegist, and the espionage novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s have a peculiarly sad English music — all long shadows and recessionals. His protagonists seem deeply ambivalent. They have been prepared for a world that no longer exists, and many of them are stumbling. They remain loyal to their school, college, class and, ultimately, their Queen (if seldom their wives), yet the country they serve disappoints them.

Inside the Circus, there is a feeling among the best that the institutions they are fighting to preserve might not be worth the struggle after all. And there are traitors in their ranks, those prepared to cross over to the other side — reading le Carré’s spy novels one thinks often of the shabby final years of the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, who wore his Eton tie long after defecting to the Soviet Union.

Themes of conflicted loyalty and spoiled idealism recur again and again in le Carré’s novels and contribute to their ambiguity and fascination. Often dismissed as a mere genre writer — by Salman Rushdie, Clive James and others — le Carré is, in fact, one of Britain’s most accomplished postwar novelists, whose fiction has chronicled and continues to chronicle the great movements of contemporary history.

Apart from Tinker Tailor, his best novel is, I think, A Perfect Spy (1986), which is also his most personal book. It’s wonderfully labyrinthine, and can be read on several levels — as a detective novel, a metaphysical thriller, an anguished confession and as an experiment in forms. Le Carré uses abrupt shifts in time, as Joseph Conrad did in The Secret Agent (1907), and perspective to tell the story of Magnus Pym, an English double agent who has gone on the run after betraying secrets to the Czechs. Intelligence officers are searching for Pym, who, in turn, is searching for answers to the fundamental questions of his life: who exactly is he and what led him to betray his country? Writing in the late 1980s, Philip Roth called it the “finest English novel since the war”.


On first impressions David Cornwell (le Carré was a pseudonym to preserve his diplomatic cover) seems like a typical member of the English establishment. Tall and patrician, he was educated at Sherborne and Oxford, and taught at Eton, which he called the “spiritual home” (that phrase again) of the English upper classes.

After leaving Eton, he worked for MI5 and MI6 and, because he spoke fluent German, was posted to the British embassy in Bonn. One learns from Adam Sisman in his authorised biography that Cornwell is a brilliant raconteur and mimic, and has been fabulously wealthy for decades because of the bestselling success and film adaptations of the novels. But first impressions are never entirely reliable, as any spy would know.

As Sisman tells it, David Cornwell nurtures deep resentments and class insecurities, going back to childhood. His father, Ronnie Cornwell (1906-75), was a freewheeling chancer, conman and recidivist who went to prison on several occasions. Ann, David’s first wife, called Ronnie “the only really evil person I ever met”. He had monstrous appetites — for money, women, cars, houses, always living beyond his means, never settling in one job or house for long. He hosted extravagant parties, stayed at the finest hotels (bills were mostly left unpaid), and socialised with sports stars, actors, politicians, gangsters and aristocrats. He moved from one hare-brained scheme to another, sometimes lucking out, before the inevitable fall.

One morning, when David was only five, his mother left the family home and never returned. He did not see her again until he was an adult and remained distant from her until her death. “We were frozen children, & will always remain so,” he wrote to his elder brother decades later.

At his prep school, where he boarded and encountered the usual sadistic and perverted masters, David was still wearing a nappy at the age of seven because of an inability to control his bladder. “He became especially sensitive to social nuance, noticing details to which boys from more secure backgrounds might be oblivious,” Sisman writes.

As a boarder at Sherborne David felt awkward and isolated. He was embarrassed by Ronnie, who defaulted on the fees, and by his humble relatives. He has since complained about “the indelible scars that a neo-fascist regime of corporal punishment and single-sex confinement inflicts upon its wards”. Yet, when the time came, he sent his sons away to fee-paying boarding schools, a decision he regards now as a “tragic mistake”.

After leaving Sherborne prematurely (he was 16), David went to live in Bern, Switzerland. There he read Goethe, studied German and was in tentative contact with the British security services. He completed his national service and, assisted by a contact from Sherborne (the old boy network doing its thing), won a place to study modern languages at Oxford, where he socialised with the privileged sons of inherited wealth without being one of them.

Before long he was also serving as an informer for MI5, betraying the confidences of many leftwing university friends and associates. “He had chosen loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends,” writes Sisman. Secrecy would become a compelling preoccupation, secrecy as a way of life and as a means by which to understand character and motivation.

Sisman has written an admirable but curious biography. It’s at its best when recounting the grotesque behaviour of Ronnie Cornwell and his son David’s struggles to escape from his monstrous father’s malign influence and find purpose in life, which he did when the worldwide success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), liberated him to write full-time.

As the author of distinguished biographies of historians AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sisman is familiar with the mores and machinations of the high English establishment. He understands the interconnections that existed (and still exist) between the great schools, Oxbridge, Whitehall, Westminster, the Inns of Court, Fleet Street, the gentlemen’s clubs and the City. He knows the codes and can speak the language — all of which has helped in his appreciation of the textures and intricacies of what le Carré calls the “clandestine world”.

There is, however, something missing. It’s as if Sisman is, or feels, constrained: he seems unwilling to pass judgment on le Carré as he follows him on his journey through life or properly evaluate the novels. When his research contradicts something le Carré has written or told him, he simply puts it down to an instance of “false memory” and moves on. In his introduction Sisman says that his subject read the manuscript in advance of publication and that it will be revised, presumably when he is dead.

But in the book we have now, as it stands, Sisman does not really come close to capturing the inner life of the man we know as John le Carré, always the hardest task for any biographer, especially when his subject is alive. Le Carré is a man and writer of multiple contradictions. He is of and for the establishment but simultaneously estranged from it. A patriot who at university put country before friends, he has refused all official honours, including a knighthood. He has had close friendships with strident rightwingers such as the late Conservative MP and diarist Alan Clark and William Shawcross but claims to have been a long-time Labour voter (though he loathed Tony Blair). He has certainly become angrier with age, raging against the Iraq War and condemning the iniquities of “extraordinary rendition” and the rapacity of multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Le Carré has been accused of being anti-American and anti-Israeli, and has feuded publicly with Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown (when she was editor of the New Yorker). He frequently changes agent, as if always restlessly seeking self-validation and a better deal (“how much am I worth”? He refuses to allow his novels to be entered for literary prizes such as the Man Booker, perhaps because he fears the humiliation of rejection by the London literati.

Sisman hints that le Carré has considered suicide but does not elaborate or explain how close he came. Similarly, we know that his marriage to Ann was destroyed by his long absences and affairs, and that his second wife has tolerated his adulteries. In particular, Ann, who had literary ambitions of her own, emerges from the book as a wounded, pleading woman. How does David feel about her upset and failures and how does Sisman feel about how she was treated? We are not told.

An outstanding absence — especially curious in a book about a major writer — is literary criticism. Sisman writes at length about the business of books: about the rights deals, agents, royalty cheques, publishers, reviews and so on. But when it comes to the novels he offers little beyond scant plot summaries. He tells us repeatedly that le Carré is a great novelist but does not attempt to explain how he achieves his effects. Who are le Carré’s precursors? What are his stylistic and technical innovations? Is he a conventional realist or a more experimental novelist? How did the spy genre evolve? What of the influence of novels such as Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes (1911)? Again, Sisman has nothing to say.

In the end, one suspects, John le Carré remains a mystery even to himself. But whatever his private turmoil, his considerable public achievement has been to chronicle and interrogate the history of our times. More than this, he invented his own lexicon of espionage — the Circus, tradecraft, lamplighters, moles, scalphunters, pavement artists, the honey trap — that will endure as a permanent part of the language.

John le Carre: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Bloomsbury, RRP£25 / Harper, RRP$28.99, 672 pages

The battle for the soul of Essex Man

April 30 2015 / New Statesman

If Labour are ever again to win an absolute majority, it must start by winning back working-class voters in constituencies like Harlow.

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George Orwell's luminous truths

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings, by George Orwell, Harvill Secker, RRP£25, 496 pages

December 6 2014 / Financial Times

England Dreaming: George Orwell

George Orwell’s luminous gift was for seeing things, for noticing what others missed or simply found routine or uninteresting; for discovering meaning and wonder in the familiarity of the everyday. Matthew Arnold defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. But for Orwell culture meant something quite different — “the life most people lead”, as John Carey has put it. Orwell seldom distinguished between high and low culture. Nor was he a relativist: all things were not of equal value to him but they were potentially of equal interest. Little escaped or seemed beneath his notice, from boys’ comics to the rituals of hop-picking, which was why he was such a good reporter.

There’s a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in which Winston Smith, the troubled, isolated hero, is being forced to watch propaganda films. He is moved by something he sees in one of the broadcasts: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked from the air. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets hitting them both but she embraces him all the same – before, we are told, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.” For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm symbolises something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in a hostile world.

Repeatedly in Orwell’s fiction and non-fiction, one encounters moments of clarity such as this, when the reader is startled by something small but significant that the writer has revealed or noticed. One thinks in particular of Orwell’s essay “A Hanging”. Recalling his period as an imperial policeman in Burma, the writer describes looking on as a condemned man steps to avoid a puddle as he is led to the gallows. Why should he care about wet feet when he is about to die? But, Orwell writes: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive.”

One thinks too of the essay “Shooting an Elephant” in which Orwell recalls the day he shot a rogue elephant and left it to die in agony, not because he wanted to or felt the act was just but because he feared the derision of the villagers who were watching if he did not.

Seeing Things As They Are, edited by the veteran Orwell scholar Peter Davison, showcases none of the most famous essays but helpfully features lesser-known pieces and book reviews as well as some poems. It’s full of interest and curiosities. I was particularly fascinated by “Awake! Young Men of England”, a jingoistic poem about the start of the First World War which Orwell wrote when he was eleven and published in 1914 in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.

Orwell did not have a private income, unlike his old friend and fellow Etonian Cyril Connolly, and his early career was scarred by rejection and hardship. From the mid-1930s until his death in 1950, he wrote compulsively. In the New Statesman archive I once discovered a handwritten note in the margins of a back issue in which one of Orwell’s book reviews had been published: “He is keen. Will do more.”

In an appendix, Davidson estimates Orwell’s earnings from the period 1922-45: when he died, his estate was valued at less than £10,000. Of his books only Animal Farm (1945) could be considered a commercial success, after which he complained: “Everyone keeps coming at me, wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc — you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.”

Orwell lived by what he wrote in small magazines and weekly reviews: the short book or theatre review, the personal column (many of his “As I Please” columns, in which he anatomised the rituals of English life for the left-wing Labour paper Tribune are collected here), the political essay, the eyewitness report, the BBC talk.

Orwell could see things but he could also see ahead, and the limpidity of his prose — he wanted to “make political writing into an art” — could be explained by his desire to be understood, especially by the general reader.


Published during the Second World War, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” was Orwell’s attempt to articulate a new language of progressive patriotism. He denounces revolutionary leftist internationalism and rootless cosmopolitanism and writes with respect about the patriotism of the ordinary man and woman. “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”

Orwell was writing in 1941, before the Americans had entered the war, when the British nation was isolated and imperilled. For Orwell the nation was bound together by an invisible chain. “At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.”

“Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again,” he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, four years before what he desired became manifest in the landslide victory of Clement Attlee’s Labour government. Patriotism and intelligence: the argument will have to be made all over again in our own age of bitter division and upheaval.

Orwell despised jargon. In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” he warned against the dangers of the “inflated style” — against excessive stylistic ornamentation, long words, redundant or strained metaphor, ready-made formulation and use of the passive voice. He wanted to illuminate the times in which he lived — to show as well as tell, to report and discover rather than merely pontificate.

Both left and right have of course claimed him; the right because of his vigorous anti-totalitarianism, popularised in the late political fables Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and because he never ceased challenging the pieties of the left or those he contemptuously called the “orthodoxy-sniffers”. In a 1941 review of Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties, he writes of the “shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia”. He rails against those who, as he put it in an essay on Arthur Koestler not included in Seeing Things, “have always wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian”.

Yet, I think, in spite of his pessimism and hatred of the all-powerful bureaucratic state, Orwell remained of the left and for the left, even if he was also profoundly conservative in his respect for the traditions, codes, institutions and character of English life. As a young man, he was in his own self-description a “Tory anarchist”; later he called himself a democratic socialist. And he instinctively sided with the outsider and the underdog.

Just as he rebelled against the expectations of his “lower-upper-middle class” background — St Cyprian’s prep school, Eton, imperial life in Burma — so he refused to submit to the rigidities of doctrinal orthodoxy. “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” is the title of a Van Morrison album. It could have been the title of the autobiography Orwell never wrote - except that it would have been too grandiose for his taste.


Some of Orwell’s finest writing occurs towards the end of Homage to Catalonia (1938), his account of the betrayals he witnessed during the civil war in Spain when, like many other idealistic socialists, he joined the international resistance to Franco’s fascists, only to be wounded in combat. During his months in Spain, Orwell was outraged by what he considered to be the treachery of the Soviet-backed communist government, which was persecuting and killing anarchists and members of the Marxist POUM militia, for whom he fought on the Aragon front.

In 1937 Orwell wrote an indictment of the communist government, which he denounced as a totalitarian, “anti-revolutionary” force. He called it “Eye-witness in Barcelona” and sent it to Kingsley Martin, the celebrated editor of the New Statesman, from whom he’d received early encouragement. It was rejected (but eventually published in New English Weekly as “Spilling the Spanish Beans”).

As a committed socialist, Martin was concerned that Orwell’s report could have “caused trouble” for the left: a case of you are either on our side or you’re not. “As a sop”, says Davison, Orwell was asked to review a book about the civil war, The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau, which Martin also rejected, against the advice of his literary editor, Raymond Mortimer. Orwell was outraged and never forgave Martin, because he had allowed ideological sympathies to influence his editorial independence: Martin’s was the “corrupt face” of censorship.

Homage to Catalonia, which sold fewer than 1,000 copies in his lifetime, ends with Orwell’s return to England. Disillusioned by his experiences in Spain and with his hatred of revolutionary dictatorship intensifying, he finds his home country to be reassuringly, seductively becalmed. The book’s wonderful, long final paragraph — one of my favourite in all of Orwell — begins, “And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world…”

The author discovers that “down here” in Deep England it was still the country he had known in childhood — “the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate”, “men in bowler hats and posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings”, and so he goes on in characteristic style. However, something isn’t quite right. The people are “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England”, yet Orwell knows war is coming and that soon everyone will be “jerked” awake by “the roar of bombs”, as in time they were.

It’s often said the left seeks traitors and the right converts. In 1949, sick with pulmonary tuberculosis and with his judgment becoming increasingly erratic, Orwell compiled a list of “crypto-communists and fellow travellers” for the International Research Department of the Foreign Office. Some of his acquaintances never forgave this small act of betrayal. On the list were two New Statesman editors, Kingsley Martin, whose editorship lasted from 1930-60, and Norman Mackenzie, who worked on the paper for 20 years and used to lunch with Orwell. (Also included was the super-patriot J.B. Priestley, author of English Journey.)

In a letter to a friend written on the day of Orwell’s funeral, Frederic Warburg - who published Animal Farm after it had been repeatedly rejected - described it as one of the “most melancholy occasions of my life”. Warburg said that “English literature had suffered an irreparable loss”. He was correct: many have since aspired to write in the Orwellian tradition, most recently and notably Christopher Hitchens, but no English writer has his authority and moral clarity or his mastery of so many different forms: the essay, the parable, the book review, the narrative report. His loss was indeed irreparable.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. As a novelist, perhaps his style was too plain and his realism too simple, even sentimental. As a journalist, when he wasn’t reporting, he could be priggish. He was not always right — it was foolish to have drawn up his list of crypto-communists and fellow travellers, for instance — but he was sincere in his commitment to truth-telling, even at the expense of making enemies of former friends, as he did of HG Wells.

George Orwell was a radical and a conservative, an English patriot and an English rebel. He disliked imperialism and all forms of tyranny, from the boarding school bully to the Stalinist apparatchik. He was an empiricist, not an ideologue. And he was a moralist who wrote of the world as he found it not as he wished it to be. He celebrated the English character and English civic life as something worth conserving. And he never ceased writing well or loving his country. He was dead at the age of 46, yet his influence and example grow more radiant with each passing year.

Letter from Edinburgh: the Untied Kingdom

September 13 2014 / New Statesman

The final days of the Scottish referendum campaign

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Lost Promise: the short, brilliant life of Marina Keegan

June 20 2014 / Financial Times

In autumn 2011 Marina Keegan, a precociously gifted English major at Yale who was being mentored by the eminent scholar Harold Bloom, published an essay in the college newspaper. “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” (the whimsical title suggests the influence of David Foster Wallace or George Saunders) was about the career choices of elite Ivy League graduates. Keegan, who also wrote and acted in plays, lamented how many of her peers – a quarter at Yale, she calculated – would soon be pursuing high-paying careers on Wall Street or in management consultancy.

This troubled and saddened Keegan, who was an activist in the Occupy movement and served as president of the Yale College Democrats. It told her something important about her generation of millennials and what they wanted, or were coerced into wanting, that she did not like.

The essay reached a readership far beyond her student peers and, after a version of it was republished in The New York Times, it inspired, Marina’s mother Tracy told me, a wide-ranging discussion about what America’s brightest young people should be doing with their lives in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession.

Just before she graduated in May 2012, Keegan wrote the cover piece for a special graduation edition of the Yale Daily News. “The Opposite of Loneliness” would be her farewell to a brilliant student career at Yale. It was also a plea to her fellow graduates not to waste time and to “make something happen to this world”. Keegan wrote often in the first person plural, as if she were speaking not only for herself but a generation. “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything,” she wrote in “The Opposite of Loneliness”. “We can change our minds. We can start over . . . The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating from college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

The essay was a viral hit and seemed to confirm what everyone who knew Keegan already thought about her: that she was a young person of tremendous promise. One of her creative writing professors, Anne Fadiman, called her a “self-starting cornucopia”. You sense that Keegan knew she was good, perhaps the best of her cohort. “Vaguely, quietly, we know we’ll be famous,” she wrote in one piece at Yale.

Within a few days of graduating, Marina Keegan, who was preparing to take up a staff job on The New Yorker magazine after impressing there as an intern, was killed in a road accident. She and her boyfriend, Michael Gocksch, had been on their way to Marina’s father’s 55th birthday party in Cape Cod when the car hit a guardrail and overturned. An inquest revealed that Gocksch had fallen asleep at the wheel. He was unhurt in the crash but Keegan was declared dead at the scene. She was just 22.

When he was told what had happened, Harold Bloom said the young woman’s death was “beyond human comprehension”. He added: “It is 60 years since I first came to Yale. I can think of only a few other women and men I have taught whose presence always will be with me.”

. . .

Keegan’s damaged laptop was recovered from the wrecked car; from its hard drive her mother retrieved her unpublished writings. These, together with short stories and pieces from the Yale Daily News, have been collected in a book, The Opposite of Loneliness. Edited by Anne Fadiman, it has been a small sensation in the United States, where it has been widely and mostly generously reviewed. Keegan has, indeed, become famous but not in a way that she or anyone could have imagined or would have wished.

Many of the book’s themes – the confusions of romantic love, your first car, college jealousies and rivalries, the strangeness of returning home to your parents after a long period away – are juvenile: after all, Keegan was only 22 when she died. Yet there is a surprising preoccupation, too, with death and mutability and this gives the book depth and a kind of macabre retrospective fascination.

Milan Kundera has written about what he calls “the mathematical paradox in nostalgia: that it is most powerful in early youth, when the volume of the life gone by is quite small”. Keegan seems to have had a keen sense of this paradox: even as she prepared to leave Yale and was excited by her future prospects, she seemed to have been mourning something she understood could never be recaptured, the bright brilliant life of her student experience. “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness,” she wrote in her final piece, “but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.”

Tracy Keegan told me when we spoke on an indistinct phone line (she was on a train to New York), that her daughter was extraordinarily driven. “She grabbed life and ran with it,” she said. “Compassion, humanism and humour – these are the three strongest ingredients of our family. Marina was driven by her passions but also by a sense of urgency.” Why such urgency in one so young, I asked. “Perhaps she had a sense of things to come . . . ” Tracy Keegan’s voice faded, and then there was silence.

. . .

There is not much footage of Marina Keegan on YouTube, apart from some recordings of poetry recitals she gave at Yale. In one performance she recites from memory a long poem she wrote called “Bygones”, the last line of which is “And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” As she speaks you can see how she is drawing confidence from the audience and the pleasure their enthusiasm gives her.

It’s moving to watch this young woman speaking about everything being “so beautiful and so short”, knowing what happened to her soon afterwards. “High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see,” writes Anne Fadiman in her introduction to The Opposite of Loneliness. “[But] Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

As an undergraduate I had a special fascination with several writers who died too young, notably Keats, Wilfred Owen and Alain-Fournier, who wrote one enchanting novel, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), before he was killed shortly after enlisting to fight in the first world war. I loved them for what they had written but also for what they might have written had they lived even just a few more years.

It’s something like this with Marina Keegan’s first and last book. Her voice is so fresh, her enthusiasm so appealing, her ambition so boundless that you cannot help but wonder what she might have achieved with more life experience and once she was freed from the hothouse environment of an ultra-competitive Ivy League school. “When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted,” wrote the 17th-century polymath Blaise Pascal. Keegan had her own surprising and delightful natural style. She persuades by sweetness, not authority. She also had a very American sincerity but was never solemn or worthy. She performed in plays and was active in politics; her friends speak of her wit and warmth. For Fadiman, “Every aspect of her life was a way of answering that question, ‘How do you find meaning in your life?’”

I asked Tracy Keegan whether she felt any anxiety about exposing her daughter’s juvenilia to the world. “Marina would have been mortified,” she said, half joking, “but this is all we had to choose from. What has given me sparks of light in the darkness is the way people from all over the world have responded to [her graduation essay] “The Opposite of Loneliness”. So many have contacted us to say its message has changed their lives. This encouraged us to push through this whole thing and get more of her words out there in the world.”

Marina, her mother said, “was willing to put on paper her fears, hopes, insecurities, foibles, jealousies. She had courage. My daughter had courage in her writing.” And now she has many readers too.


Eton eternal: How one school came to dominate public life

May 8 2013 / New Statesman

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley speaks to Anthony Little, headmaster of Eton College, about the role of public schools, the new crop of Etonians ruling public life and Gove’s education reforms.

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The Long Shadow of George Orwell

April 19 2013 / Financial Times

On the evening of Margaret Thatcher’s death, BBC2 broadcast a special edition of Newsnight. The novelist chosen to participate, via satellite from New York, was Martin Amis. With his absurdly suave voice, celebrity, frown and pout and his fondness for a fine phrase, Amis was an obvious choice to be literary London’s representative on the big night (even if he now lives on the other side of the Atlantic in Brooklyn).

Like Thatcher, his career-defining work was done in the 1980s, and on Newsnight he recycled old jokes and riffed on the names of some of those who served under Thatcher – “the Keiths, Normans and Cecils”. It was an amusing cameo but no more than that: it was striking that Amis, once such a perceptive cultural critic, had nothing original or notable to contribute, as no doubt his old friend Christopher Hitchens would had he been alive.

At moments such as the Thatcher death, one misses Hitchens. His Manicheanism and absolutism could irritate but, even as you disagreed with him, you admired the superb fluency with which he defended his positions. He was never afraid of stridency. And he continually addressed the most divisive issues of the age: the rise of Islamism, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the limits of western power, religion and its role in the world.

With Hitchens dead and Amis becalmed, what is missing from the literary-political landscape is a figure with the significance and commitment of George Orwell or HG Wells, someone who writes novels as well as political essays and popular journalism, and to whom we can turn and learn from at moments of national consequence or crisis, and around whom others can gather, as today they still gather around Orwell.

We are fortunate, of course, to have Ian McEwan, whose novels are animated by the dilemmas of the day. But he is a very different writer from Orwell or Wells, less explicitly political, more a novelist who also happens to be a nuanced journalistic commentator when the occasion arises than a controversialist and participant in the commanding political battles. Orwell and Wells, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase from Culture and Anarchy, helped us “to see things as they really are”. They wrote in plain language and when they talked about literature they talked about politics and vice versa.

Unlike so many novelists today, they excelled in various forms – fiction and non-fiction, criticism and journalism – and they sought to interrogate the world as they found it as well as conjuring dystopian visions. Wells was enthralled by science and The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau are radiant with the excitement and possibility of technological change. Orwell, who might best be described as a Tory anarchist, was fearful of change and of the future; Wells rushed to embrace both.

The American writer Barbara Kingsolver has said literature “doesn’t tell you what you think. It asks what you think.” But perhaps it is not a question of either/or. Perhaps a better definition of the engaged political novelist is one who simultaneously asks questions of the society in which they live and tells important truths about it.

After the London bombings of July 2005, I wrote a profile of Ian McEwan in the New Statesman, the magazine I now edit. I described him as being the closest thing Britain has to a national novelist, which is now how others describe him too. What I continue to like about McEwan, even if his excessively schematic novels can disappoint, is that he is interested in politics, in the broadest sense.

He published some of the finest pieces of all in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks and again in the run-up to the Iraq war and it was no surprise that he should write one of the more thoughtful reflections about Margaret Thatcher after her death.

In the 1980s McEwan was one of a group of literary writers in London — others included Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, Harold Pinter and Hanif Kureishi — who were radicalised by Thatcherism. They loathed and scorned the woman who won three general elections while, I believe, never really attempting to understand what she represented or the consensus-breaking forces she unleashed. In Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988), she is caricatured as “Mrs Torture”. In McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987), she is not named but the novel’s repulsive, domineering female prime minister, whose voice is “pitched somewhere between a tenor’s and an alto’s”, is clearly based on her.

But now, in late middle age and after her death, McEwan could write more reflectively about Thatcher: “She forced us to decide what was truly important ... Her effect was to force a deeper consideration of priorities.”

The same could not be said of David Cameron or Ed Miliband and that is part of the problem as well as the challenge for contemporary novelists with political preoccupations for whom the Westminster jamboree has become such a great turn-off, as it has for much of the population.

Ours is a resolutely post-ideological age. Beyond the west, Islamism long ago replaced communism and secular liberation movements as an ideology of rebellion and revolt. There are no compelling, world-historic clashes of secular ideas as there were even in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was fighting the cold war and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. This partly explains why some of today’s most intellectually stimulating writing is now about climate change (John Gray, Elizabeth Kolbert), religion (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Alain de Botton), science (Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins) and nature (Robert Macfarlane) rather than ideology or class.

When the New Statesman was founded 100 years ago it was intended to be a “weekly review of politics and literature”. Note those two words, “politics” and “literature”. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who also co-founded the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics, wanted their “paper” to be a vehicle for their ideas and for it to play a leading role in what they hoped would be a “scientific” transformation of society and the “world movement towards collectivism”. Theirs was a socialism of experts: technocratic, statist, bureaucratic.

Among those closely associated with the Webbs were Wells and the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who provided £1,000 of the initial £5,000 required to set up and fund the NS. Both Wells and Shaw wrote regularly for the paper on politics and then later, in the early 1920s, after the NS broke free from the Webbs’ influence, the novelist Arnold Bennett became chairman and one of the chief benefactors. In 1931, after a merger with the Nation, the old voice of social liberalism, John Maynard Keynes became chairman and the paper’s cultural pages were imbued with the spirit of Bloomsbury.

Yet from the beginning, there was a separation between the politics and the literature, between what was published in the front and back halves of the paper. The NS became known as a “pantomime horse”, with the “political” front and “cultural” back defined by different sensibilities and aspirations. There seemed to be no connecting bridge between the two “halves”, or worlds, of the paper. The understanding was that the front half was rigidly political in mission and intent while the back was more plural and open. It was as if the demands of politics and literature were in some way antagonistic; that to concentrate too much on the political would be to neglect the literary and to be too literary would be to misunderstand or to be insufficiently serious about politics.

When Amis worked on the Statesman as literary editor in the late 1970s, he was baffled by and found comical the political commitment of his friends and fellow staffers Hitchens and James Fenton, both then on the hard Trotskyite left. He has written of how Hitchens improved as a writer, his prose gaining in “burnish and authority”, only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line and this had affected his literary style.

Today the pantomime horse has been slain. No such division exists between politics and culture. As a former NS literary editor myself, I have presided over what Jonathan Derbyshire, the magazine’s present culture editor, describes as integration from back to front: “An intrusion into the political part of the magazine of a temperament and cast of mind – sceptical, ecumenical, liberal – that has always reigned at the back.” But we are still searching for the contemporary equivalent of George Orwell, let alone Christopher Hitchens, for the writer who works in multiple forms and who seeks in his or her work to unite truth, literature and politics.

Will the culture ever throw up another Orwell? Perhaps the answer is that the culture and the way we define “political” have changed too much. It’s not that we do not have novelists of considerable political ambition. There is John Lanchester, who writes with extraordinary lucidity about the financial crisis and the internet. There is James Meek, whose narrative journalism, in long, rigorously researched reports published in the London Review of Books, has won him a place on the 2013 Orwell Prize longlist. And there is Will Self, a prolific novelist and journalist whose scabrous wit and satire compare with the best of Jonathan Swift.

But none of them is politically engaged or committed as Orwell or Wells were. Politics is incidental to rather than the core of who they are. They are political rather than Political. For Orwell, Wells and other great New Statesman writers such as J.B. Priestley (who produced a 1957 article that led to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and Arthur Koestler, whose Darkness at Noon (1940), was a parable of leftist disaffection, the besetting moral problems of the age were ideological. How should the pacifist left, appalled by the carnage of the first world war, respond to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler? Should a socialist support or reject the Soviet Union? How to respond to the nuclear threat? What attitude to adopt towards communism?

For Orwell there was only one answer to that last question. What mattered was truth-telling, no matter what it revealed about your own side and positions. He was especially outraged when Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman from 1930-1960, refused to publish his “Eyewitness in Barcelona”, a 1937 dispatch from the Aragon front that implicated the Soviet-backed government forces in atrocities against the non-Stalinist Poum militia. For Orwell, Martin’s action was unforgivable because he had allowed ideological sympathies to influence his editorial independence: Martin’s was the “corrupt face” of censorship.

Orwell wrote political essays and explicitly ideological fiction as well as gentle, nostalgic novels about Englishness such as Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He was a reporter as well as a commentator. Little about English cultural life escaped his notice, from comics to the rituals of hop-picking.

Wells was also a satirist, essayist and parabolist. His greatest novel, Tono-Bungay (1909), takes its young hero on an adventure through an England that is hierarchical, class-bound, uneasy and riven but also full of possibilities. It’s an exuberant state of the nation study of a kind beyond the reach of most contemporary British novelists.

Wells was fascinated by the Soviet experiment. In the 1930s, for the New Statesman, he visited Moscow where he deferentially interviewed Stalin and sent back reports on life there (he liked what he saw, sadly). Both Orwell and Wells were radicals who, as with Koestler and many others for whom the god of communism failed, slowly became more sceptical about the threat the authoritarian state posed to individual liberty. Their scepticism was ultimately in conflict with their political commitment and the former triumphed.

Today, in Britain, one can read any number of good political novels from Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!, a satire of the worst excesses of Thatcherism, to the best of the Booker Prize-winning, Scottish vernacular stylist James Kelman, for whom alternative verbal idioms serve as a form both of cultural resistance and self-definition. But are these writers political in the way Orwell was? I’d say no.

Our most consistently interesting political novelist is, I would argue, John le Carré. He is foolishly dismissed as a mere genre writer – Rushdie once mocked what he considered to be his literary pretensions – but his longevity and resilience are remarkable. Le Carré has long had a grand subject – English imperial decline and institutional corruption – and his consuming preoccupation is betrayal, personal and political. Indeed, for Le Carré the personal and the political are inseparable.

In the acknowledgments section of his new novel, A Delicate Truth, Le Carré thanks Anthony Barnett, the founder of the openDemocracy website, for “educating me in the manners of New Labour in its dying days”. I asked Barnett about Le Carré and he said: “Behind the thriller, there is both a penetrating assessment of the state of our world, a Britain in decline especially – but not only, as the cold war made him a world writer from the start – [and] also a careful, profoundly moral investigation of good and evil, corruption and weakness, integrity and striving, inheritance and sheer badness and greed.”

Yet Le Carré works more in the pessimistic tradition of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. As good and vital as he is, he’s no Orwell or Wells. Would that we had one, a writer today who could explore – as they did theirs and in as comparably various ways – the complexities of our age, stricken by crises and caught in the headlong rush of change.

Letter from Israel: The endless war

November 22 2012 / New Statesman

Reporting from Tel Aviv and Ramallah as the latest rash of violence began to sweep Israel, Jason Cowley finds a nation implacably set on a course of war . . . and increasingly disconnected from the world.

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Letter from Harlow: Reaching for utopia

October 25 2012 / New Statesman

After the war, Harlow was supposed to offer east Londoners the chance of a fresh start and a stab at the good life. This month, it became the place where a suspicious fire killed six members of a Muslim family.

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What does David Cameron want?

July 4 2012 / New Statesman

The Prime Minister’s lack of originality.

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States of play

January 21 2012 / Financial Times

In the summer of 2006, I spent six weeks in Germany on assignment to write about the World Cup for a British Sunday newspaper. Those were long, settled days of warmth and sunshine and I had very little work to do - perhaps one essay to write each week.

I rented a small flat in central Berlin that overlooked Peter Eisenman’s austere Holocaust Memorial and was situated opposite the Adlon Hotel, from a high, open window of which the disturbed pop icon Michael Jackson once dangled one of his babies in a moment of manic exuberance. Accredited journalists were given a complimentary first-class rail pass for the duration of the tournament and I spent my days travelling on trains and reading or rereading novels and stories with sporting themes, just to get in the mood.

It seems strange now to recall that all of these books were by American men: Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, David Foster Wallace ... I also read Thom Jones’s stories about luckless boxers; Tom Coyne’s 2001 novel about a golf caddy, A Gentlemen’s Game; and, as I do every year, The Great Gatsby, which uses golf to expose the dishonesty of the narrator Nick Carraway’s girlfriend. In most of what I read, sport was portrayed as being central rather than marginal to American life, as well as being a way to test and explore moral character: resilience, courage, toughness, loyalty.

There was an implicit understanding in these books that most of us live, as Ford puts it in his 1986 novel The Sportswriter, “applauseless” lives, none more so than Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman “hero” of Updike’s great tetralogy, written between 1960 and 1990, that comprises Rabbit Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit At Rest.

Rabbit is a sportsman of sorts - he was once a “first-rate” basketball player. But as a mature adult, he is restlessly second-rate. We first encounter him as a young man on the basketball court, where he is nimble and commanding. Then, at the end of Rabbit at Rest, we look on as he dies in bloated and complacent late middle-age - on a basketball court, completing the circle of his life. Rabbit’s is an emblematically American death. He has joined in with a group of kids who are playing in a park, and he collapses, “bursts from within”, as he rises to shoot a basket, the ball hitting the ground just after he does. “Harry,” wrote Updike in an introduction to the collected Rabbit novels in 1995, “was for me a way in - a ticket to the America all around me.”

The narrator of Ford’s The Sportswriter is, like Rabbit, a would-be man of action and sportsman who has lost his way in life but who never stops believing in the redemptive capacity of sport. The novel begins with a resounding declaration: “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter.” Written with terse lyricism in a flat, confessional style, it’s essentially about ennui and drift, and the failure of a certain kind of American man to become emotionally literate.

Bascombe’s young son has died, his marriage is over and, though he once wrote an acclaimed book of stories, he no longer has the ambition to write anything more demanding than sports features. But he is good company: cynical, laconic, yet capable of moments of wonder.

I first read The Sportswriter not long after it was published - it was a gift from my father - and it seemed entirely new and fresh, so unlike the English novels I’d read. I couldn’t imagine that the English writers I was being encouraged to read at that time - William Golding, Graham Greene, John Fowles - would begin a novel as Ford did or write with the same idiomatic freedom and confidence about the centrality of sport in our lives. I used to think that a choice had to be made between sport and literature; that you couldn’t be both a sportsman and a book man. They represented two separate and distinct cultures, the life of the mind and the life of action, and there was no connecting bridge between them.

I was wrong, of course, but it took me many years and the emergence of the new memoir-writing about sport, inspired by Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Pete Davies’s All Played Out in the early 1990s, to understand why. I realise now that my misunderstanding was bound up with class anxieties about what was an appropriate subject for serious and considered study and reflection, the failures of English education (mine, at least) and, above all, with the absence of a literary tradition.

Even today, there’s still scarcely any tradition of British fiction about sport, as there is about war, class, politics or crime. Nor is there much fiction that moves in and around the subject of sport as David Foster Wallace does in Infinite Jest (1996), which is set partly in a tennis academy. There are good English novels in which sportsmen have a walk-on part or in which sport features tangentially (such as the comedies of PG Wodehouse or LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), with its portrayal of a village cricket match) or pejoratively and sarcastically, as in the work of Martin Amis. London Fields (1989), perhaps Amis’s best novel, has a low-life character named Keith Talent. He’s a wife-beater, small-time crook and darts player, and the object of much hilarity and scorn (Keith - he has no talent at all, get it?).

Amis, as was Foster Wallace, is a tennis fan, and even plays recreationally. But when he writes about the game in a novel such as The Information (1995) or in his journalism, it’s always with an eye on the next gag; it’s always as a vehicle for grotesque humour or satire. It’s as if, in common with so many English novelists of his generation, he’s incapable of taking such a non-intellectual pursuit seriously as a worthy subject of fiction: far better to go head to head with nuclear war, Islamism and the Holocaust. Or could it be that as a subject for fiction sport is simply too tricky to represent - the on-field action sequences, I mean? Also, how to represent the consciousness of those who excel at sports when they themselves are mostly incapable of describing how and why they do what they do so well?

Amis once said perceptively of Updike that “his fascination with the observable world is utterly promiscuous”. The same could be said of most of the major male American novelists of the postwar period, for whom no subject, however superficially trivial or banal, seems to escape their notice. American reality, Roth wrote in a 1960 essay, “stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

As well as writing a novel about baseball, The Great American Novel (1973), Roth creates, again and again, characters whose youthful sporting brilliance and athleticism is rapturously described, so as to make their subsequent struggles and decline seem all the more poignant. And always the bookish, cerebral Roth delights in humbling his sportsmen, as if to punish them for being so physically strong and naturally gifted. I’m thinking here of Swede Levov in American Pastoral (1997), of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain (2000) and, most recently, of Bucky Cantor in Nemesis (2010).

In June last year, Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. He did not attend the dinner in London, but those of us who were there watched a recording of him reading from Nemesis , set during a polio epidemic in Newark during the hot summer of 1944. The central character is a physical education teacher at a boys’ playground. Because of poor eyesight, Bucky has been exempted from the draft but he is immensely strong and throws a javelin prodigious distances. He’s something of a hero to the boys he teaches.

The novel is narrated in a long retrospective by one of Bucky’s former pupils and the story he tells has the terrible inexorability of Greek tragedy. Late on, we learn what became of the proud and stubborn Bucky, of how he was an unwitting carrier of the polio virus that was killing and maiming the boys in his care and of how he himself was eventually struck down and crippled by the disease.

Yet the book ends not on a single note of despair but rather in ironic glory as we encounter Bucky once more as a young man. It’s a summer afternoon and he’s out with the boys in a big dirt field, demonstrating how to throw the javelin. “It’s not magic,” he tells them. But for the boys, what they witness is a kind of magic - the magic of high sporting dedication and accomplishment, of the mysterious naturalness and grace of it all. To the boys, Bucky seemed “invincible”.

It was this radiant passage, when he had the pick of all of his work, that Roth chose to read for guests at the dinner. As he described Bucky’s exploits with the javelin, sitting at his desk at home in north-west Connecticut, Roth lifted and then stretched back his throwing arm, fully inhabiting the moment now, as if he was engaged in the act of becoming Bucky, or had become him. It was a lovely thing to behold.

Perhaps the most acclaimed American novel of recent months is Chad Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding, just published in Britain. Written from many different points of view, it is broadly the story of a young college baseball prodigy who suffers a catastrophic loss of nerve - the “yips”, in the vernacular - after a fielding accident. Harbach is a cultural critic and one of the founding editors of the smart, Brooklyn-based literary magazine N+1. He worked on the novel for more than a decade and says he was influenced by Don DeLillo, especially by his early work about American football, End Zone (1972), and by Foster Wallace, whom he describes as “one of the few novelists who have really thought about the relationship of sport to larger society”.

It’s this willingness to think about sport and its role in, and relationship to, larger society that separates American writers from their British counterparts. There has been no equivalent in British fiction of the long, opening set piece of DeLillo’s epic 1997 novel Underworld, in which he thrillingly recreates a famous 1951 baseball match between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and sets it in the turbulent context of the early stirrings of the cold war and of American paranoia about the communist threat. The best sporting set piece in a British novel I can think of, by contrast, is the golf match between James Bond and Goldfinger at Royal St George’s, Kent - it’s entertaining and well written but scarcely serves as a statement about English society, in the grand DeLillo and American style.

The publication of Fever Pitch in 1992, which borrowed from the American writer Frederick Exley’s “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes (1968), inspired a whole series of British sports memoirs from the early 1990s onwards. These were less about the sport itself than about the psychological condition of fandom. For a new generation of writers, after Hornby, sport became the means through which to write about the particularities of their own lives, their loves and losses, aspirations and failures.

American novelists such as Harbach, and those who came before him such as Roth, Foster Wallace and DeLillo, are doing something much more imaginatively difficult when they dare to write fiction about sport, because they aren’t merely rubbing up against, or seeking to recast, the actuality of events already known and familiar. Or to tell us what they were thinking about or how they were affected by them. Rather, they are creating entire fictional sporting worlds - something from nothing, as it were - populated by characters who can seem as real to us as Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi. In fact, they seem more real - more complex, more human even, because the novel, at its best, is the one art form that offers privileged access to consciousness and interiority, to the inner torments, excitements, contradictions and indeed boredom of the human story.

“You loved it,” Harbach writes of baseball in The Art of Fielding, “because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition.” And that something crucial is that: “We’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

So for Harbach, the secret of the appeal of sport to the American novelist is this: that, like art, it is a potential gateway to beauty, and can make us feel fully alive. Foster Wallace said something similar in a 2006 essay on the Swiss tennis genius Roger Federer: “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.”

Can we ever expect an equivalent of The Art of Fielding on this side of the Atlantic? The portents at last seem promising. In March, John Lanchester publishes Capital, a sprawling, panoramic state-of-the nation novel in the realist tradition of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South or HG Wells’s Tonay-Bungay. Its setting is one London street and, through the lives of those who live on it, seeks to dramatise the larger story of the English nation at a time of soaring inequalities and profound economic crisis. Lanchester is a clever fellow who knows a lot of stuff - including a lot about football and one of the main characters is a young African Premier League player.

Lanchester understands how football, in the age of the globalised Premier League with its clubs owned by Gulf oil theocracies and international plutocrats, has become the dominant cultural form of our times and that no novel that seriously wants to take the temperature of modern England, to hold up a mirror up to how we live today, can ignore sport.

What I like is that Lanchester is not content with merely describing the African’s life away from the pitch but follows him on to it, describing his debut in an extended scene that savours what Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars”. It’s worthy of Updike at his most promiscuous and, I hope, signals a new, more ambitious direction in English fiction.

Christopher Hitchens: Never giving ground

January 2 2012 / New Statesman

The editor of the New Statesman reflects on the life and legacy of the great contrarian

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: An elegy for England

September 22 2011 / New Statesman

John le Carré’s classic novel, now adapted for the big screen, is much more than a cold war whodunnit.

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How good is Martin Amis?

From The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, Faber & Faber, April 2011

April 2011 / From The Good of the Novel, Faber & Faber

As the son of a famous novelist, the late Kingsley Amis, and an ardent reader of Saul Bellow, with whom he became friends, Martin Amis was from the beginning of his career unusually interested in what it means to write fiction in a style that is inimitably and ostentatiously your own. His early preference for writing about low-life in a high style, his blokey banter and cool, languorous wit, and his fascination with porn and junk culture, meant that, for better or worse, he was for a long period the commanding presence of English fiction, the one the new literary lads jostled to imitate, the writer-as-celebrity, the main man.

Conrad famously wrote that any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line. In this sense and this sense only, Amis’s prose has a Conradian urgency: he has always been aggressively competitive, seeking to invent his own idiom and discover daring new ways of writing about the modern world.

‘I don’t want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,’ he once said - and only a writer as anxiously self-evaluating as Amis would have called his book of selected criticism The War Against Cliché, a title that, at once, seeks to elevate (himself) and to challenge (others). Look at my works and despair, he seems to say: you won’t find any ready-made formulation between these hard covers, nothing ordinary, banal or commonplace. So Amis is a warrior of words, in battle against the forces of mediocrity, as represented by the journalist, the genre writer, the hack biographer, all of whom he remorselessly slays, until there is nothing left but their words: bad words, clichéd words.

And Amis wanted to write about the present. Frank Kermode has written that a condition of thinking about the future was that one automatically assumed that one’s own time stood in an extraordinary relation to it: “We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.” There is certainly a sense in Amis’s work of eschatological anxiety, of the pre-eminence of our present, with its impending sense of ecological catastrophe and apocalyptic weapons of destruction.

“The task of the novelist is to interpret the present and the near future, to ask where are we heading, how are we changing?” Amis told me when I visited him at home one July afternoon in 1997. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to write about everyday life; that I wouldn’t write, say, westerns or historical works. I would have been surprised if I’d set anything in the past, unless, as I did in Time’s Arrow, I wanted to explain something about the present. Looking at Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, I ask myself can I read any more pastiche, can I get through another novel that has, as it were, f’s for s’s and spells always a-l-w-a-e-i-s.”


In 1992 Amis published an amusing short story about male narcissism and rivalry called ‘Career Move’. Its turbocharged engines were, for Amis, the familiar ones of ironic inversion and paradox: two writers, a poet and a screenwriter, experience a remarkable reversal in fortune when the poet finds himself being flown first-class to Hollywood, where he is feted by agents and directors compete to make a film of one of his poems, which is titled ‘Sonnet’. Meanwhile, the screenwriter is condemned, as most poets usually are, to submitting his work, wearily and with increasing desperation, to small magazine as he seeks publication. The two writers, once friends, become ever more anguished rivals, especially when the movie of Sonnet opens in 437 theatres and ‘does seventeen million in its first weekend’.

Male rivalry – especially between writers – is a recurrent theme in Amis’s fiction. ‘All writers,’ he once said, ‘if they mean business, if they’re ambitious, have got to think they’re the best. You haven’t got a chance of being the best unless you think you’re best.’

His first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published in 1973 when he was twenty-four. When the novel begins, the 19-year-old narrator, Charles Highway, is preparing to go up to Oxford. He is a verbal exhibitionist: he writes fancily and talks extravagantly. And he is cruel in the way he seduces and then spurns young women. He keeps fastidious records – his “papers” – of his conquests and couplings. He is an auditor of the carnal. The novel has a young man’s dread of and disgust for the old, for what time does to us all. ‘The skin had shrunken over her skull,’ Highway writes of his mother, ‘to accentuate her jaw and commodious collerage for the gloomy pools that were her eyes; her breasts had long forsaken their natural home and now flanked her navel; and her buttocks, when she wore stretch slacks, would dance behind her knees, like punch balls.’

Everything that would define Amis as a novelist and stylist was here in microcosm: the grotesque humour and revolt against pulchritude (‘her breasts had long forsaken their natural home’), the cruelty (who really would talk of their mother in this way?), the ironic knowingness and literary allusions (‘the . . . pools that were her eyes’ – Shakespeare, innit?), the baroque phrase-making.

In The Moronic Inferno and other visits to America, a collection of his journalism and essays published in 1986, Amis argued that Saul Bellow wrote in a style fit for heroes, the High Style.

‘To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work . . . The High Style attempts to speak for the whole of mankind . . . to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten.’

Amis, too, aspired to write in the High Style, to evolve his own exalted voice, and, on the whole, he achieved just that: operating both as a novelist and essayist he published prolifically throughout his twenties and thirties, his novels deepening and hardening in their preoccupation with decay and disaster. He wrote comic novels but without the usual consolations of comedy. He was drawn again and again to the defining crises of our post-war world – to the corruptions of capitalism and excessive individualism (Money, 1984), to the threat of nuclear annihilation (Einstein’s Monsters, 1987, a book of stories about Cold War fears), to the anxieties of millenarianism and visions of apocalypse (London Fields, 1989), to the Nazi catastrophe and the Holocaust of the Jews (Time’s Arrow, 1991), to the loneliness of a godless world (The Information, 1995).

Amis is, wrote John Updike, an ‘atrocity-minded author who demands we look directly at things we would rather overlook’. It was as if in his restlessness and because of his ambition he was seeking subjects worthy of the grandeur of his exalted style, the defining subjects of our time: genocide, nuclear war, environmental degradation. He wanted to write about the whole of society, not only a small part of it. ‘The 19th-century British novel was, if you like, a superpower novel,’ he told the New York Times in 1990. ‘It was 800 pages long, about the whole of society. With [British] decline, the novel has shrunk in confidence, in scope. In its current form, the typical English novel is 225 sanitized pages about the middle classes. You know, “well-made” with the nice color scheme and decor, and matching imagery. I almost try and avoid form. What I’m interested in is trying to get more truthful about what it’s like to be alive now.’

Whether or not he was succeeding in this, he was being read. People were taking notice. His ‘stuff ’, as he refers to his work, was the talk of the town. He was becoming a literary celebrity in the American model: watched, gossiped about, well rewarded, imitated. His mastery of different registers and modes of address, his blokeish banter and sardonic fascination with the tawdry excesses of consumer and popular culture – with porn, and booze, and drugs, and fast women – meant that, for better or worse, he became the novelist most widely imitated in style and voice by any number of younger British writers. You could detect the influence of Amis’s urgent, rhetorical, insistently comic style, his riffs and repetitions, his improbable reversals and playful paradoxes, his inner-city locations, in the first two novels of Zadie Smith.

Yet in the early 1990s something happened to Amis. It was as if he took a wrong turn. Attitudes hardened against him; reviewers traduced him; diarists and columnists eviscerated him. He was still the most influential writer of his generation – or at least he said he was - but this influence was perceived increasingly as baleful.

How did this happen? The answer can be given in two words: The Information. This was no ordinary novel. This was meant to be his superpower novel. Five years in the writing, it was marketed as The Amis Novel, a work of the highest ambition, comparable in reach and achievement to the best of Bellow or Updike or Philip Roth. It was marketed as a novel that would reveal the truth of how it felt to be alive and living in London, the most global city in the world, at the end of the most violent century in human history. “Where were the new rhythms?” he asks in The Information.

Amis certainly gave the impression, before publication, that he had produced something special. His best novel? He had long been preoccupied by how good he was and by his place in the literary scheme of things. ‘People kept saying that I was the most influential novelist of my generation or whatever, and so I wanted to see what I was worth,’ he said at the time.

So, how much was he worth?

His agent Pat Kavanagh, the now sadly deceased wife of his long-time friend and fellow novelist Julian Barnes, was sent out to extract an advance of £500,000 from Jonathan Cape, which is part of the Random House group and had published Amis for more than twenty years. The amount was at the time considered unreasonable even for an author as esteemed as Amis; though widely admired, his books were never bestsellers and he was seldom a contender for the main literary prizes, such as the Booker, which have an exponential impact on sales. Following much anguish and vilification, Amis found himself a new agent, and a new publisher prepared to pay the desired advance, HarperCollins, part of the Murdoch media empire. By the time it was published, in April 1995, The Information was as much a journalistic as a literary event – and was received as such; Amis, perhaps unfairly, found himself under review both as a man and as a writer. His moral character became part of the wider discourse; this was literary criticism as biography. The book was a commercial and critical failure; Amis would soon afterwards return to Jonathan Cape, his reputation diminished.

I read The Information shortly after publication, and recall being exhilarated and frustrated in equal measure. I’d long admired Amis, especially the literary journalism. His profiles of American writers collected in The Moronic Inferno were one of the main reasons why, in my early twenties, I’d wanted to be a journalist; those essays delighted me with their disciplined intelligence, their empathy, reach and invention, as much as if not more so than his fiction. I always thought something important was missing from the fiction, especially the early novels: heart, warmth, fellow feeling. I enjoyed the manic comedy and the extravagant style, but seldom felt the urge to return to these books. It was Amis’s journalism and literary criticism that mattered most to me, when he was writing well to deadline, about any number of subjects from literature to sport to pornography to celebrity culture. It is not that he has no hierarchy of taste: he is an unashamed elitist, dedicated to the great works of the Western canon. Rather, what made him such a good journalist is his curiosity. He seemed open to all possibilities.

The Information was about a mid-life crisis; Amis, who was forty-five in 1995, certainly seemed to be living through multiple crises of his own during the writing and publication of it: his long-time marriage was ending; he was having expensive surgery on his troublesome teeth, which had turned unfairly him into a figure of fun; and the intimate details of his pursuit of a talent-affirming advance (“I wanted to see what I was worth”) was being reported in the newspapers as if it were a story of national significance, like the announcement of bad economic data or the fall of a government minister. The media frenzy seems, in retrospect, absurd but for Amis The Information marked the end of the era. After its publication, his reputation was diminished. He ceased to be the most influential novelist of his generation.

Instead, in the following years, writers such as Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro achieved the kind of career-defining commercial and critical success that Amis, above all literary novelists of that time, had once seemed destined to enjoy. He has written nothing exceptional since The Information, turning away from grand, 500-page state-of-the-nation-style novels as he experiments instead with other forms: nourish crime (Night Train, 1997), memoir (Experience, 2000), political narrative (Koba the Dread, 2002, a book about the crimes of Stalin and why the left for too long stayed silent about communist oppression), the novella (The House of Meetings, 2006) and the autobiographical novel (The Pregnant Widow, 2009).

There was one short novel, Yellow Dog (2003), which features the usual desolate inner-London setting; the usual comic cast of preposterously named grotesques, such as a tabloid-reporter called Clint Smoker (Amis evidently likes the name – a character called Smoker appears in The Information as well); the usual supercharged prose style, mixing the vernacular of the street with a more refined literariness. Unfortunately, Yellow Dog, as Michiko Kakutani, a longstanding admirer of Amis, wrote in the New York Times, ‘reads like a sendup of a Martin Amis novel written by someone intent on sabotaging his reputation’. It need not detain us here.

So, what of The Information? It certainly reads as if it were the culmination of an entire fictional project. All the old obsessions are here: male rivalry, inevitably; literary envy; the allure of dirty money; the unknowability and mystery of women; the impossibility of love; the fear of time’s irreversibility; metaphysical terror. The Information is a comedy of cosmic humiliation; the strivings of two writers, who both live in west London and turn forty as the novel begins, are set in the context of a godless and pitilessly indifferent universe. Throughout the book the omniscient narrator stands apart, mocking and commenting on the struggles of his characters, reminding us of the futility of artistic ambition, indeed of all ambition. We are hard-wired, the novel tells us, to seek meaning in a universe in which there is none.This is the real information that comes to us in the night, that comes to us when we least expect and want to think about it.

The Information begins well enough, with Richard Tull at home in west London and in bed with his wife, Gina; it is the middle of the night and he is weeping. The first sentence is lovely – ‘Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing.’

Who is the speaker here? Is this to be another first-person confession, in the style of Money, which was narrated by the junk-food-addicted, coke-sniffing John Self, or London Fields, narrated by Samson Young, an American in London who is dying from an unnamed wasting disease, possibly Aids? Not quite. The ‘I’ of this first sentence turns out to be the omniscient narrator, a distinct, self-conscious character all his own.

His initials are MA, as you would expect, and he directly enters the narrative when he meets Richard in a park, just as John Self in one of Money’s best set-pieces meets a writer named Martin Amis in a pub, observing how the writer is ‘small, compact, wears his rug fairly long’. This time, the role of Amis-as-narrator is much more directly controlling and interpretative. He is at once complicit in his characters’ miseries and at an ironic remove from them. Again and again he interrupts the story to apostrophise and pontificate, like a puppet master breaking the spell of performance directly to address his audience. “Here are the strings,” he seems to be saying, “through which I exert my control.” This serves merely to remind us of the artificiality of the entire exercise.

Once Richard is up and about the next morning we discover what it is he has to cry about. He is a novelist who no longer publishes novels. He is a father of disruptive twin boys, from whom he seeks to escape even as they turn the family home into a battleground. He is impotent, naturally. His marriage is moribund – Gina was once his ‘sexual obsession’, which was why he married her, but that was a long time ago. He has no money. He has just turned forty, and has a cyst on the back of his neck, which he disguises by growing long what is left of his hair. Worst of all, his closest friend, Gwyn Barry, is a successful novelist: a bestseller, a prize-winner. The writers are in continuous competition. They compete in the snooker hall, at the chess board and on the tennis court – as well as, naturally, in the shower, where Richard furtively watches Gwyn ‘toweling his humid bush’ while speculating on how ‘nice’ it would be ‘to have had a big one’. Richard beats Gwyn at chess, at snooker, at tennis. None of this matters to him because, when it comes to writing, to the literary high stakes, Gwyn is winning. Gwyn has everything that Richard wants: wealth, a readership, Hollywood interest in his work and a beautiful young aristocratic wife he adores and fucks as often as he can. As if this weren’t enough, as the novel opens, Gwyn discovers that he is on the shortlist for a prize, the nicely named Profundity Requital – which, if he wins, will provide him with an income for the rest of his life. Good work if you can get it.

Amis enjoys taking us through the routine of Richard’s days, contrasting his calamities and woes with Gwyn’s triumphs. Richard dresses ridiculously in bright waistcoats, reviews literary biographies, edits the arts pages of The Little Magazine, sells scraps of literary gossip to the papers and moves without purpose through the degraded streets and sordid parks of west London, the familiar Amis territory intersecting Holland Park, Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, his fictional patch, his manor.

At night, Richard retreats to his study to work on his latest novel, Untitled, a novel so opaque that it induces a migraine in whoever attempts to read it. We have been here before in the company of Amis, most obviously in the early novel Success (1981), an engaging caper in which two foster brothers are set against each other in perpetual competition, especially over women, with one more successful than the other, until their fortunes are reversed, as in the story about the poet and the screenwriter, ‘Career Move’. The rivalry between the writers in The Information is darker and far more treacherous than in these earlier fictions, at one with the unremitting bleakness of the urban setting – and there is to be no dramatic reversal for Richard. If anything, his luck is destined to run out altogether, especially once he decides that he can escape the prison of his envy only through destroying Barry, through ‘fucking him up’ once and for all. This becomes his consuming mission. What sustains him in his unhappiness and envy, what keeps him going as he trips and stumbles in his various attempts to destroy Barry, is the knowledge that his rival’s novels are worthless. ‘Gwyn’s success was rather amusingly – no, in fact completely hilariously – accidental,’ he tells himself. ‘And transitory. Above all transitory. If not in real time then, failing that, certainly in literary time. Enthusiasm for Gwyn’s work, Richard felt sure, would cool quicker than his corpse. Or else the universe was a joke. And a contemptible joke.’

To smooth his mission Richard enlists the help of a street thug he meets one afternoon by chance. His name is Steven Cousins (aka Scozzy) and, together with his two black sidekicks, a driving instructor called – wait for it – Crash, and 13, a man who answers not to a name but a number, and an unlucky one at that, certainly for Richard, as it turns out. Amis, like Bellow before him, likes to introduce low life criminals into the mix with writers and aristocrats. He likes the comic possibilities this creates and slippage and he enjoys experimenting with different modes of speech. Here is 13, complaining about the enhanced powers of the police in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain:

‘The titheads . . . is like a gang. The Old Bill is like a gang. Hired by the government. When did it happen? It happened when they upped the pay. 1980 or whatever. They saying: It’s gonna get rough. Unemployment is it. Riots or whatever. You keep a lid on it and we pay you extra. Where’s the money come from? No worries. We’ll fine the fuckers.’

This amusing passage is evidence of Amis’s fine gift for listening and then for attempting to replicate the multiracial patois of the inner city. The trouble is: he is seldom prepared to loosen the reins of narrative control; he is always insistently and tiresomely present, pre-empting the reader. So, 13’s riff about the police is prefaced thus: ‘13 drew breath: he was about to give voice – and in the high style. His intention, plainly, was to speak not just for himself but for all men and all women, in all places, in all times – to remind the human heart of what it had once known and had now long forgotten.’

Haven’t we heard something like this before? ‘The High Style,’ wrote Amis of Bellow, ‘attempts to speak for the whole of mankind . . . to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten . . .’

Because this is an Amis novel it must necessarily follow that Cousins – and 13 and Crash – shall be a comic grotesque, rather than a comic surprise. It follows that he must conform to (stereo) type, even though he introduces himself to Richard as ‘an autodidact’, in a way that is against type. This interests Richard and, for once, he stops thinking about himself and thinks instead about Cousins. ‘Autodidact – that’s a tough call,’ Richard says.

‘You’re always playing catch-up, and it’s never wholly that you love learning. It’s always for yourself.’

This is one of the more poignant observations in the book, because true, but Amis never takes it anywhere. He never attempts to enlarge Cousins as a character or explore the possibilities of his quest for knowledge as, say, E. M. Forster did with the culturally ambitious working class suburban clerk Leonard Bast in Howard’s End or Zadie Smith did in the character of a young black American rapper in On Beauty, her homage to Howard’s End. This is, above all, a failure of imagination and of empathy: a failure that extends most problematically to Richard’s wife, Gina. We are told that Richard is impotent. Indeed, Amis riffs on the theme of impotence. Richard, he writes, was ‘impotent with her [Gina] every other night and, at weekends, in the mornings too . . . Nor did the bedroom mark the boundary of their erotic play. In the last month alone, he had been impotent with her on the stairs, on the sofa in the sitting room and on the kitchen table.’

Later, he returns to the subject:

After each display, after each proof of his impotence, it was into his excuses that Richard poured his creative powers . . . In the early weeks they explored the themes of tiredness; and then re-explored it . . . There they lay together, yawning and rubbing their eyes, night after night, working their way through the thesaurus of fatigue: bushed, whacked, shattered, knackered, zonked, zapped, pooped . . . As excuses went, tiredness was clearly a goer, amazingly versatile and athletic; but tiredness couldn’t be expected to soldier on indefinitely. Before very long, tiredness made a natural transition to the sister theme of overwork, and then struck out for the light and space of pressure, stress and anxiety.

All of this is tolerably amusing, but it is also unbelievable, especially in the context of the marriage as depicted in the novel. Amis insists on telling rather than showing the details of Richard and Gina’s sexual difficulties. When on the few occasions they are shown together, fretting over unpaid bills or discussing Richard’s chances of finding a publisher for his unreadable novel, their encounters are fraught. This marriage is cold and deathly. Richard and Gina are emphatically not portrayed as being a couple who, when chance would have it, are attempting to have sex on the stairs or kitchen table, heady and reckless with mutual intoxication. Nor does Richard and, by implication, his puppet master Amis pause to reflect on how this repeated rejection may be affecting Gina.


For Martin Amis prose style is not mere decoration; it reveals moral character. ‘When I read someone’s prose I reckon to get a sense of their moral life,’ he wrote in Koba the Dread. What of his own moral life? If you read Amis’s prose against itself you find an empty space where once the consolations of faith and belief might have been for the nineteenth-century novelist, where for later writers, perhaps, a political programme would have been, and where now love ought to be, however tangentially expressed. Many of Amis’s best non-fiction pieces are enriched by love – the love he feels for his father and siblings and children and for the writers and books that mean most to him. There is no love in his fiction, certainly for or between characters. There is only a love of style, something that precedes and is anterior to the fiction. The very act of writing for Amis must be an act of love, even if he is repeatedly drawn to what is most morbid and debased in the human story. His achievement, as Adam Mars-Jones observes, has been “to separate beauty from the cause it traditionally served… to detach lyrical language from the lyrical impulse”.

Amis inhabits a resolutely post-religious world, in which everything is perishable and there is no redemption. The universe, he keeps telling us in The Information, is not, emphatically, “about us” or interested us. This was a theme he also explored in the novella Night Train, which is narrated by a tough, lonely Irish-American female cop with a man’s name (Mike Hoolihan). Night Train is, like The Information, un livre sur rien – a book about nothing. Or, rather, about being and nothingness.

Mike Hoolihan is investigating the death of a young woman, the well-named Jennifer Rockwell, who has been shot in the head. But this is a detective novel without a murderer because it becomes apparent that Jennifer, a family friend of Hoolihan’s, was not murdered. She killed herself as she sat one day alone in her apartment – but why? We learn much about Jennifer during the course of Hoolihan’s sad investigation, most pressingly, and oddly, that she was happy enough before her death and largely fulfilled in her life.

So why did she do it? There is a clue to the mystery of her death in the work she did. Jennifer Rockwell was an astronomer; it was her professional duty to study emptiness and voids. Pascal wrote that ‘man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed’. Not so with Jennifer Rockwell. She, Amis suggests – and the reader must accept, because nothing else in her fine bright life of achievement and opportunity indicates that she would have killed herself – evidently saw into the nothingness of Pascal’s ‘immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me’. She could not live with this knowledge of the futility of human endeavour, with this mounting terror of the infinite void, and so she took her own life.

A terror of the void is also what keeps disturbing Richard Tull in his sleep, awakening him to the reality of his failures. When Amis is not pushing these fears on to the hapless Richard, he stands apart from the narrative, taking time out, as it were, to talk about time – and space. Long passages of the novel are given over to astronomical equations and calculations.

‘Out there, in the universe, the kilometer definitively has it over the mile. If the universe likes roundness. Which it seems to do. The speed of light is 186,282 mps, but it is very close to 300,000 kps. One light hour is 670,000,000 miles but it is very close to 1,000,000,000 kilometres . . .’

Even the characters think of themselves in cosmological terms. “If people were planets, Richard thinks, he would be Pluto, and Charon his art. Pluto was the smallest of the planets, so far away from the sun. How would he feel now, all these years later, to discover that Pluto is no longer even categorised as a planet; in 2006 it was downgraded to the status of ‘dwarf planet’?


The universe’s first appearance as a major character in an Amis novel was in London Fields, published in 1989 but set a decade later, on the eve of the new millennium. Despite the title, this is an anti-pastoral, a study in urban psychosis and alienation. The sense of crisis is acute: time is out of joint, London’s streets are polluted, crowded and violent; the weather has gone wrong (in 1989, Amis knew all about the heat waves to come) and the threat of nuclear and environmental catastrophe is omnipresent. Samson Young, the narrator, alone in his flat, and dying, writes, ‘We have all known days of sun and storm that make us feel what it is to live on a planet. But the recent convulsions have taken this further. They make us feel what it is to live in a solar system, a galaxy. They make us feel – and I’m on the edge of nausea as I write these words – what it is to live in a universe. Particularly the winds. They tear through the city, they tear through the island, as if softening it up for exponentially greater violence.’

Many scenes take place in a west London pub called the Black Cross, where a promiscuous woman of thirty-four called Nicola Six (or should that be Sex!) is searching for a murderer – her own. She ends up meeting Keith Talent, a wife-beating, small-time crook and darts player, and perhaps Amis’s most energetic low-life creation. (Keith – he has no talent at all, of course. Ha ha.) London Fields is sprawling and fragmentary, a novel about writing, full of intertextual jokes and self-references – Samsom Young is staying in the flat of an absent writer, one Mark Asprey, who may or may not be the same ‘MA’ who, in Nicola’s diary, is referenced as her most accomplished lover. MA – get it? The plot, such as it is, is incoherent. Nicola knows that she is to be murdered and when, on her next birthday – when she will be thirty-five, such a resonant age in literature (the age at which Dante enters the inferno, halfway through the journey of his life) – but not by whom. How she comes to know this is never properly explained, as Amis is no major realist, with minors in psychology, motivation and agency. The suspense turns on who is to be the murderer. Is it to be low-lifer Keith Talent, over whom Nicola exerts considerable sexual control, or high-born Guy Clinch, the naive and gullible posh boy with the demanding wife and demented child, who Nicola teases and torments?

It doesn’t really matter in the end who the murderer is, though the murder takes place all the same, because Nicola, Keith and Guy have all the garish unreality of cartoon characters. We are encouraged to care little or nothing for them. What we are encouraged to care for – and we do - is the big picture: the language, the artifice, the art. To read London Fields is, in many ways, to encounter a writer with too much talent. Amis wants to try everything – anything – because he can, and more often than not it comes off. Look at me, he seems to be saying, I can juggle with all the balls in the air.

Shortly after the publication of London Fields, Amis was interviewed in the New York Times. At the age of forty, he had begun to feel old. ‘It’s a little death, middle age. Romantic possibility . . . changes. It’s calmer waters now, windless seas – if not the doldrums. You always thought it was a hilarious secret that while everyone else got old, you weren’t. But children redefine everything for you. A lot of the self is lost, thank God; the internal gibber of wants and need dies down.’

Ah, calm seas, the doldrums . . . as it turned out, Amis could not have been more wrong, because he would soon find himself adrift in turbulent waters indeed. If The Information is a book about a mid-life crisis it was written, as Amis told me when I interviewed him at home in north London one evening in the summer of 1997, at the end of what he called his own ‘cataclysmic midlife crisis’. In retrospect, the entire book reads like an extended crisis – of ambition, of confidence, of over-reach. In the last instance, it is an exercise in heroic decline, the monumental work towards which Amis had long been moving as each novel became longer and more multi-layered, as each novel strove to be truly novel: new, urgent. A superpower novel!

Yet approaching the final 100-page stretch of The Information, once the two writers have returned from a protracted and hysterically rendered book promotional tour of the US, the structure begins to mimic that of its central character. It atrophies. It begins slowly to collapse in on itself. The strain becomes palpable. In the fourth and final part of the book, Amis starts closing each discrete section with a ruled line, a technicality introduced for no apparent reason. He begins to shift points of view and, intermittently, we have access to Gwyn Barry’s thoughts. The weather becomes more extreme (‘All the rumours of the wind now gathered themselves, in riptide’) and the astronomical musings more overwrought, as if it is not only Richard Tull who feels he is running out of time:

‘The Man in the Moon is getting younger every year. Your watch knows exactly what time is doing to you: tsk, tsk, it says, every second of every day. Every morning we leave more in bed, more of ourselves, as our bodies make their own preparations for reunion with the cosmos . . . The planesaw whines, whining for its planesaw mummy. And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night.’

During that meeting at his house in 1997, I was baffled as to why the experience of ageing should have been so traumatic for Martin Amis. The complacency of youth, no doubt. Now, having reread The Information all these years later, I understand how the real subject of the novel is not literary envy or male rivalry, the ordinary motors of his earlier comedies. It is the fear of death, a fear that can come upon us suddenly, nightmarishly, in early middle-age.

‘During a mid-life crisis you feel stupefied,’ Amis told me. ‘You are living in a land you no longer recognise. You don’t know the language anymore. You feel lost. Women have a biological change; men don’t. It’s a pity because the whole thing might be understood more if they did. A mid-life crisis is really about reaching an accommodation with death.’

For Amis, more than most, the passing of youth must have been painful. He’d always achieved so much so young. He was the writer with the high-energy style and the cool, street-smart persona: the writer who once told me his mission was to go in search “of the new rhythms”. The young Martin Amis glistened with promise, and he kept on improving: each new book seemed at the time to be an advance on the one before. Until, that was, he wrote The Information, and revealed how increasingly over-reliant he had become on the same effects and satirical conceits, the same tropes,and how destined he was to repeat himself, like poor Pincher Martin scrambling for survival on his blasted rock.

Like Woody Allen, Amis is a comedian who yearns to be a catastrophist. Updike was right when he called him atrocity-minded. This may explain why no matter how much he labours to import seriousness into his fiction – through writing about the threat of nuclear war, the Holocaust, Stalin’s gulags or, more recently, Islamism and the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 – his novels never really move me or, I think, succeed in conveying the textures of felt experience. There is something powerfully ersatz about them. They never transport us to the heart of the human muddle in the way that his non-fiction can. Largely this is because his characters remain trapped within the matrix of his style. They are ghosts orbiting, forever lost, in the monotonous sublime of caricature. You struggle to believe in them because their creator does not bestow upon them the gift of autonomous life nor does he want you to believe in them, and if you cannot really believe in them, you cannot care.

‘All writers,’ Amis once said, as noted, ‘if they mean business, if they’re ambitious, have got to think they’re the best. You haven’t got a chance of being the best unless you think you’re best.’

Does Amis still think he’s the best? Much of his writing is about artistic rivalries, even if his ambition is to write about very big issues, not just middle-class mores. Yet this preoccupation with artistic rivalry, and the possibility of defeat in such rivalry, is intensely personal and rather parochial, echoing his own experiences in the smart, young literary London set in which he moved in the 1970s. As a subject, it isn’t really the stuff of literature, hence the need for all that additional heavy-duty intellectual support – for the scaffolding of metaphysics and astronomy.

But an essential loneliness underscores Martin Amis’s quest for absolute originality. So much of what he says and does is motivated by the same questions: What am I worth? How good am I? And one wonders what it has cost him, this relentless striving to be the best?

Early in The Information, as the narrator digresses to speculate on a future in which ‘the polar icecaps have melted and Norway enjoys the climate of North Africa’, he teasingly suggests future readers can ‘check’ the accuracy of ‘these words against personal experience’. His wager against mortality is that he believes his work – this novel – will live on and have a radiant afterlife. It’s a good joke. Will future generations read Amis? The final irony for him – indeed for all of us, including the hapless, tormented Richard Tull – is that as Amis puts it ‘only time shall tell, if not real time then, failing that, certainly literary time’. And Amis, like all of us, is skewered on time’s arrow and heading only in one direction.

Who Owns Britain?

October 19 2010 / New Statesman

There was a time, in the days of Lloyd George and then Attlee, when land reform was a convulsive policy. It should be again

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The Tragic Defiance of Gordon Brown

June 11 2009 / New Statesman

The Labour Prime Minister seems trapped - and lost

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1989 The year of the crowd

March 12 2009 / New Statesman

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley introduces a special issue on the year that saw the Berlin Wall come down.

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Letter from Dubai: the infinite city

May 4 2008 / The Observer

Dubai wants to be the ultimate sporting city in the Arabian desert

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Charles Hills: sadness and loss in the shadowlands

February 3 2008 / The Observer

CAR Hills was well known on the London literary scene. He was a magazine editor and short story writer who dreamed of publishing glory but could not escape a troubled life. But what drove him to the brink of murder?

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Cormac McCarthy: the late style

January 12 2008 / The Guardian

The brutal, beautiful fictions of an American master

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David Sylvian: Music and Silence

September 2007 / The World is Everything tour brochure

Where to locate the music of David Sylvian? His journey from the centre of planet pop to the margins of the avant-garde is certainly one of the most unusual in contemporary music. Today he occupies an exalted position in what he describes as that “wonderfully vague area where the avant-garde crosses over with electronic music and the outer fringes of jazz”.

In other words, he occupies a space that is entirely his own, just as his journey has been entirely his own, in its courage, singularity and continuous seeking after truth and innovation, both in the music, with its restless experimentation and search for new forms, and in the life as revealed through the music. Sylvian once told me that he was “not there” in the music of Japan, that he had revealed little or nothing of himself in those early songs, with the possible exception of the stark and confessional ‘Ghosts’, with its sparse, minimalist electronics and exploration of the aesthetics of emptiness – of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause. In retrospect, the young Sylvian was in hiding – especially from himself. And the music of the band called Japan he fronted with such inscrutable reserve in the late Seventies and early Eighties was ultimately a music of surfaces and stylised effects, a music of evasion.

The early solo career, beginning with Brilliant Trees in 1984 and extending through to Gone to Earth (1986) and Secrets of the Beehive (1987), was anything but evasive; the best songs of this period of high creativity are anguished expressions of interiority, worked on and recorded in collaboration with an ever-changing ensemble of musicians and composers.

After Secrets there would be a long wait before another solo album, 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake. The intervening period had seen Sylvian working closely with Robert Fripp, and, briefly, with his former confreres in Japan (together they released an album in 1991 under the name Rain Tree Crow). Dead Bees is his most serene album. Sylvian is revealed as a contented husband and father, increasingly at ease in the world and enraptured by mystical Hinduism and ritual worship: seeking at once to know and heighten the self he sings also of wanting to be liberated from its primary emotions and desires. It is, perhaps, his least challenging album, precisely because it is, in so many ways, his happiest and least self-interrogative.

There was certainly nothing about it that could have prepared you for what came next – the astonishing Blemish (2003), which even at a distance of four years has lost none of its capacity for aesthetic surprise. Blemish is the product of an artist on the very edge of dissolution, for whom everything seems to be breaking apart. If Dead Bees was a music of spiritual rapture and celebration, Blemish is its very opposite, a music of existential crisis, in which the old established forms no longer seem adequate. Listening to the album you understand how Sylvian no longer wishes to be articulate in the language of pop music. The syntax and vocabulary are too familiar, the formulations too tired.

Blemish was recorded in just six weeks at his home studio in New Hampshire and released on his own label, Samadhisound. It is raw, fragmented, and lyrically desolate, and served as my reconnection with his music. It was obvious that here was a musician under great pressure, struggling to invent his own idiom, working fast, trying to break free as he stumbled in the dark with only the fragile light of a candle to guide him.

Improbably, Blemish – Sylvian’s experiment in “improvisation and automatic writing,” as he called it – succeeded in introducing him to a whole new audience, as well as serving as a kind of personal liberation. It was as if the act of aesthetic rupture freed him to begin again, and now, in this new phase of creativity, his writing became more overtly political as he grappled with the complexities of our new world order in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington DC of 11 September 2001, their antecedents and consequences.

Towards the end of 2003, he released a pop song, but it was no ordinary pop song: ‘World Citizen’ is a protest against the American-led invasion of Iraq, at once jaunty and bitingly sardonic. This was followed in 2005 by Snow Borne Sorrow, a suite of nine songs, interconnecting the personal and the political, and released under the name of Nine Horses (the other “band” members are his brother and long-time collaborator Steve Jansen, and the German electronic experimentalist Burnt Friedman). Like Blemish, the tone is confessional, but this time, because of the sweetness of the melodies, even those tracks which are sorrowful or about the end of a love affair, such as ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’, are curiously uplifting. The album is also an experiment in forms: electronica, gospel, jazz, pop. It is, I think, his most consistently engaging, accessible, and affecting album since Gone to Earth.

A dedicated reader, Sylvian has long been inspired by poetry, literature and philosophy, as well painting and film. In an early work such as Brilliant Trees these influences were explicitly signposted. Nowadays the influences, whether literary, religious or philosophical, are much more deeply embedded in the work; they are an expression of a complete sensibility, and the effect is both subtle and complex.

All art, said the Victorian critic Walter Pater, aspires to the condition of music. But what of a music that aspires to the condition of silence? What of a music whose purpose is not to divert or entertain but to transport the listener beyond the noise of the world and the mere flux of appearances and on into consideration of a higher reality?

Music is the most abstract of all art forms because it is about and represents nothing; it is only created and experienced as music. There is nothing before or after the creation of the music; there is only silence. Yet at its best, and when heard with understanding, it can be expressive of so many different moods and states of being.

What is David Sylvian’s music most expressive of? That, I would guess, depends on the listener. According to the New York Times his voice, so evocative is it of yearning and melancholy, “is like the sound of introspection itself”. For my part, it’s impossible to listen to the best of Gone to Earth or Blemish or Snow Borne Sorrow without feeling emotionally challenged and, above all, moved, not least moved by the struggles of being that are enacted in the very form and content of so many of the songs themselves.

The Blair Delusion: the politics of excitement

May 14 2007 / New Statesman

The Blair decade began with an exuberant rush of energy and sense of possibility. How can politics recapture the ability to inspire us?

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Things Fall Apart: representations of war in Africa

April 29 2007 / The Observer

Brutalised and war-ravaged, the child soldiers of Sierra Leone and Sudan are symbols of a broken order

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Glittering Prizes

October 22 2006 / The Observer

We live in an age of cultural inflation

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Fiction after 9/11

August 13 2006 / The Observer

Authors are ideally placed to give us a true view of terrorism

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Letter from Dresden: here in the east, the World Cup feels distant

June 25 2006 / The Observer

Dresden was not chosen to host a single World Cup game, even though the stated intention of the organising committee, at least when it was bidding for the World Cup, was to incorporate the east so that it became a tournament for the whole country.

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The Cup that rules the world

June 11 2006 / The Observer

It unites continents, is watched by billions and its stars are treated as living gods. No contest can touch it for suspense or despair. Jason Cowley celebrates sport’s premier competition.

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Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos: the novel that has scandalised and seduced generations

July 16 2005 / The Guardian

The many incarnations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses

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Rwanda: 10 Years Later

February 27 2005 / The Observer

Cultural representations and the legacy of the genocide

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Childhood stories: what I used to read and why

August 23 2004 / New Statesman

One warm evening earlier this summer, on a visit to see my mother, I went up into the attic of the house where I once lived. I was searching for a box of cricket balls with which my father had returned many years ago from one of his business trips to India, and which I’d forgotten about until a chance remark by my mother that evening made me think of them all over again: the smoothness of the leather and the stitched stiffness of their seams.

For Philip Larkin, in several poems, an attic was a metaphor for coldness and sterility—and for all that is shut away and regretfully past. The never-returning moments of our lives. But the attic of my mother’s house is not like that. It is, rather, full of warm riches—artefacts and curiosities—that serve to reconnect you to childhood and adolescence, and to the person you once were: full of inchoate longing.

I never found the cardboard box of cricket balls, individually wrapped in plastic bags, perhaps because I didn’t search hard enough. I found something far more interesting instead—the comics I used to read as a very young boy in the early 1970s. More specifically, I found old, deteriorating copies of the Victor, thickly dust-covered and roped together in eight separate bundles, covering the years 1970 to 1977. For the rest of that evening and long into the next morning, I reread many of these old Victor comics, their pages time-yellowed and fragile, held by the memories they evoked.

The Victor was the first proper publication—words on paper—that I ever read. For many years, and despite the protests of various teachers and the encouragement of my parents, I read little else, and certainly never books. The Victor was a self-described boys’ adventure paper, not a comic, and even at its launch in 1961 it seemed already out of time, speaking more to the past than to the urgent present. In theme and content, with its stories about war and sport, it took its inspiration from the once popular boys’ papers Adventure (1921), Rover (1922), Wizard (1922), Skipper (1930) and Hotspur (1933), which, like the Victor, were all published by D C Thomson of Dundee. Indeed, some of the characters from those earlier publications, such as Alf Tupper, “the tough of the track”, and Morgan the Mighty, “the world’s strongest man”, enjoyed a radiant afterlife in the Victor long after the papers in which they originally appeared had closed.

Alf Tupper was an archetypal Victor hero, perhaps the most popular of them all. He was poor. He lived with an unsympathetic aunt (his gentle mother had died, I think, in a fire) and then alone in dishevelled rooms beneath a railway siding. He worked as a welder and ate nothing but fish and chips wrapped in old newspaper. Nothing remarkable about Tupper, then, except that he was a superbly gifted middle-distance runner, a working-class warrior who would compete against and invariably beat smarter and more privileged athletes, the toffs of the track, as well as any number of challengers from eastern Europe—as a patriotic Englishman, he greeted all foreigners with suspicion. Tupper had no car and, having worked a morning shift as a welder, would have to find his own way to race meetings, even if it meant running part of the way there. En route, exciting things would happen to him—once he even pulled a man from a burning plane that had crashed in a nearby field—which meant that he usually arrived late for his race. And no race was simple for Tupper. He would be tripped, pushed, barged and spiked. He would sometimes fall. But most of the time he would still win.

Tupper, like all the best comic-strip heroes, occupied a kind of perpetual present: time did not diminish him, nor wither his enthusiasm. His dark hair was cropped military-short and worn in a tufty, Morrissey-style quiff, which may have been fashionable in the mid-1950s but certainly wasn’t so when I first began to read about him in the Victor. Yet that scarcely mattered, because you didn’t read the Victor for a realistic representation of contemporary society; you read it to be inspired, to be carried into a Manichaean world of pure adventure. You knew who the enemies were (Germans, the Japanese, the very rich), who was on your side (Australians, Kiwis, Canadians) and which virtues (loyalty, bravery, honesty) would eventually be rewarded.

Rereading the Victor, I was surprised to find that the narratives I had most enjoyed and still sometimes thought about—“The Lost Warriors of Tartary”, “Captain Neilson’s Floating Mine”, “Three on a Terror Trail”, a football story called “Behind the Crimson Door” and something featuring an Australian soldier called Harry Garrett in the Arabian desert—are all to be found in issues from 1970, the year I first began to read the Victor. Or, rather, to have the Victor read to me, because I would have been too young to read them myself. Perhaps that is why I remember these particular strips so vividly: they may well have been the first complex stories I was ever told.

As it turned out, I had misremembered the title of “Captain Neilson’s Floating Mine”: it is called “Neilson in the Floating Mine” and is about a lone naval captain, Tom Neilson, who operates a British secret weapon during the Second World War—a “one-man submarine disguised as an ordinary sea-mine”. There is very little dialogue in the Neilson stories because he works mostly alone, and because so much of the action takes place inside his head, to which you have access through the glorious comic-strip innovation of the thought bubble—something Private Eye continues to use so well on its celebrated covers.

The title of the Harry Garrett narrative is, I discovered, “The Man with the Brazen Mask”, and it, too, has a war setting: this time we are in Mesopotamia (which, we are helpfully told, is “now known as Iraq”) during the First World War. A group of Australians, led by Garrett, has been sent into the desert to find and assassinate a German spy, Huth, whose mission is to “incite the Arabs to join forces against the British”. Huth, purporting to be the ghost of an Arab king, wears dark robes and the brazen mask of the title: he has as much contempt for the Arabs he is seeking to agitate into conflict as he does for his Australian pursuers, one of whom is a young Aborigine called Billy Tuesday (as opposed to, say, Daniel Defoe’s Man Friday).

There was, I understand now, something irredeemably nostalgic about the Victor. The stories are underscored by a simple, unquestioning patriotism and by a sense of imperial longing. Many of the best plots, published long after the end of empire, turn on threats to the stability of that empire in distant lands, as if it would have been too mundane to set stories of such extravagant adventure in England.

Yet in “Three on a Terror Trail”, the empire returns in the form of three turbaned Sikhs, “the Dacoits”, who have come to England to murder Sir Stanley Brand, a former high-ranking police officer in Khandan, a small British protectorate in the Himalayas. The Dacoits, the terrorists of the title, are in possession of something called koiroot, “a deadly, slow-acting poison”, fragments of which, on the voyage to England, were eaten by three rats. Far from killing the rats, the poison caused them to grow alarmingly in size; they are now hungry for even more koiroot. So the Dacoits who are pursuing Sir Stanley and his son are themselves pursued by the giant rats: this is the wonderfully preposterous set-up of one of the Victor’s finest stories.

There is no doubt, in retrospect, that the Dacoits are orientalised—portrayed, like the Japanese in many of the war stories and the Arabs in “The Man with the Brazen Mask”, as culturally alien and programmatically other. They are sinister and treacherous, and their dark skin and turbans only exacerbate their strangeness. And yet, bafflingly, we still empathise with their struggles and want them to escape from the voracious rats, if not to kill Sir Stanley.

In March 1940, George Orwell published an essay on boys’ weeklies in Horizon magazine. He read ten weeklies, including Wizard, Rover and Hotspur (this was before they had reinvented themselves as comics, publishing exclusively in strip format), and observed how contemporary history was carefully excluded. “It is worth noticing,” he wrote, “that in papers of this type it is always taken for granted that adventures only happen at the ends of the earth, in tropical forests, in Arctic wastes, in African deserts, on western prairies, in Chinese opium dens—everywhere, in fact, except the places where things really do happen. That is a belief dating from 30 or 40 years ago, when the new continents were in the process of being opened up.”

Orwell was troubled by this evasion of the contemporary and saw it as a form of covert political control: boys have a need to read adventure stories at certain ages and “they get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them”. Most people, he continued, are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth ... from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and “advanced” are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood ... If that is so, the twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of 12 and 18 by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers ... [and] there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British empire is a sort of charity concern which will last for ever.

By the time I was reading the Victor, in the era of power cuts, mass industrial unrest and the three-day working work, when we were frozen deep in the coldest of wars, the British empire was in advanced retreat and the English were leading the world in nothing so much as decline. Our national football team even failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, a trick repeated in 1978 to show that the first failure was no unlucky aberration.

Yet the Victor continued to ignore the problems of our time, political or otherwise, returning instead to the old certainties of the war years and to the period of our great imperial adventures. The cover story each week would be a true story of heroism or bravery from the Second World War. Inside, there would be the usual fictional mix of sport and war. So the imaginative landscape of my boyhood was serious, softly nationalistic, melodramatic and only rarely satirical: the Victor had none of the robust comic unreality of the Beano or the Dandy, which survive to the present day.

The original boys’ weekly was founded in 1879 and published by the Religious Tract Society. The Boys’ Own Paper published adventure stories with imperialist themes, but also short essays on eminent Britons such as Charles Darwin. Like the Boy Scout movement, its didactic purpose was to prepare its young readers for a life of duty and imperial service. One notable Boys’ Own hero was a sailor from a poor family in the East End of London called Jack Travers Cornwell. A former delivery boy, Cornwell, at the age of 15, enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1915. On 31 May 1916, during the Battle of Jutland, he was injured while waiting for orders at his post. All around him men lay dying, but Cornwell, though severely injured, refused to leave the gun turret at which he was positioned until the end of action. He died from his injuries on 2 June and was buried quietly in a cemetery in Grimsby.

As the story of his brave defiance aboard HMS Chester became more widely known, a cult of Cornwell gathered momentum: an artist’s impression of him, stricken and alone at his post, was published in the Boys’ Own Paper, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross; and in September 1916, he was reburied at the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park, a funeral attended by many thousands of people. “Cornwell has set an example of devotion to duty which will be an inspiration to British boys for all time,” wrote Admiral Lord Beresford to the readers of the Boys’ Own Paper. “It will not fall to every boy to prove so devotedly his obedience, discipline and self-sacrifice; but every boy can endeavour to live up to his example by practicing discipline and being obedient in small things. In this way character is formed, and we are able—when a crisis arises and there are big things to be done—to do them.”

When Orwell began to research his article on the boys’ weeklies, he visited a small newsagent’s shop in a poor quarter of an unnamed town. “Probably the content of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks,” he wrote. This week, I visited several small newsagents in towns in Lancashire and Essex. These cluttered shops, with their porno mags and women’s weeklies, their specialist magazines and celebrity glossies, had nothing on their shelves for boys to read, and certainly nothing that Orwell would have recognised.

What happened? The short answer is that the future happened, a future that the Victor, retreating inexorably into the past, never saw coming. Today a young boy’s bedroom is less a secret den of imaginative adventure than a pleasure dome of televisual and high-tech gadgetry, from where he communicates with the world via texting or e-mail.

The 1,657th and final issue of the Victor was published by D C Thomson on 21 November 1992. I stopped reading the comic in 1977, when it cost 5p. Looking back at some of the issues of that year, I can understand why I lost interest. Though Alf Tupper is still there and the cover is reserved for a true story of men at war, too many of the supporting stories feature elements of the supernatural: miraculous happenings, invaders from other planets, prehistoric monsters. The classic Victor story may have been exotic to a young reader living in suburban Essex, as I did, but it was never about other-worldly fantasies; it was resolutely rooted in the real, in this world.

The Victor was the last comic of its kind there ever was to be, not least because, since its launch on 25 February 1961, it had absorbed most of its rivals, including Wizard, Hotspur, Rover and Adventure. When the Victor folded, there was nothing for a young boy to seek out in its place. There was nowhere for him to go. The world had changed too much. And yet, what could be less reprehensible than a boy’s own adventure story?

Letter from Rwanda: after the killings

April 19 2004 / New Statesman

It is very early in the morning, the sun is rising above the eastern hills of Kigali after a night of unceasing rain. Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, his small team of advisers and I are at the airport waiting to see if we will be allowed, on our way to Kinshasa, to stop off in Bukavu, just over the border from Rwanda in eastern Congo. Unresolved negotiations had been taking place for much of the previous day and long into the night between the British ambassador in Kigali and representatives of the transitional national government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a failed state.

Because Britain is investing in the reconstruction of the DRC, Benn, as much of a liberal interventionist as his Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is determined to visit Bukavu. Before meeting President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, he wants to find out from local people in the troubled east of the country, as well as from the United Nations soldiers based at Adikivu camp, about life under the transitional government. President Kabila wants the secretary of state to fly directly to Kinshasa. “I think it’s a question of protocol,” Benn says, as we climb aboard the six-seater jet that will carry us across the vast jungle nation that is the Congo. Either that, or Kabila recognises a meddling Blairite when he sees one.

Eastern Congo was the site of repeated cross-border raids from Rwandan and Ugandan troops during the second Congo war, in 1998, in which the former Zaire was invaded by six different African countries and more than three million people were killed. It is, like much of the country itself, only tangentially under the control of the transitional government. A decade after the end of the genocide in Rwanda, the murderous Interahamwe still roam the thick forests of the region, terrorising remote villages. The Banyamulenge (second- and third-generation Tutsis living in eastern Congo) remain more aligned to Rwanda than to the so-called national government in distant Kinshasa. In truth the entire region is less part of a homogeneous nation than a collapsing pseudo-state: different towns and villages are under the control of different ethnic groupings or rival militias and, long after the war officially ended, the battle for mineral resources goes on. So, remorselessly, does the killing.

Since Labour returned to power and established the Department for International Development, there has been a concerted attempt to link the delivery of aid more directly to issues of peace and stability. Without peace in collapsed states such as Rwanda and the Congo, there can, so the argument goes, be no true development. This explains why Hilary Benn has been travelling through the Great Lakes Region in search of political solutions to entrenched problems (before Rwanda and the DRC, he was in northern Uganda, meeting families displaced in the war between the Ugandan state and the nihilistic Lord’s Resistance Army).

Yet how much of Labour policy is the result of hard-headed realism and how much the result of emotionalism and guilt? Before travelling to the Congo with Hilary Benn, I spent just under a week in Rwanda, my visit coinciding with the tenth-anniversary commemorations of the genocide. Britain is the single largest bilateral donor to Rwanda—this year we will give [pounds sterling]42m in aid to the world’s tenth-poorest country, a country with which we have no former colonial ties and where we only recently opened an embassy. It is hard not to be cynical about such belated generosity and to conclude that it must have something to do with the failure of Britain and other powerful nations to intervene in 1994 (as they would later do in Kosovo) to prevent the killing of more than one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. It is hard, too, not to wonder why impoverished Burundi, which has the same uneasy ethnic balance as neighbouring Rwanda and has witnessed state-driven massacres of both Tutsis and Hutus over the past three decades, will this year receive only [pounds sterling]7m in British aid.

When I asked Benn about this, he spoke of the desire of the government “to do good”; then he retreated into abstraction and rehearsed generalisation. Later, however, he returned to the subject of Burundi. “We have a small presence there,” he said, as we shared tea and toast in the garden of the British ambassador’s residence in Kinshasa. “But the honest answer is that we can’t do everything everywhere ... What we can do, and must do, is to work as part of the international system ... and to encourage African initiatives and organisations such as the African Union, which is active in Burundi.”

At moments of apparent stress, this likeable, sharp-featured son of Wedgwood can look and sound uncannily like his more famous father, Tony Benn, with whom he shares the same sincerity and commitment, if not the overt left-wing politics. He gives the impression, or so I would like to think, of conducting a kind of anguished inner dialogue with his father; he must be never free from the sound of two fervent, evangelical voices, those of Benn and Blair, each tugging him in different directions.

On my first evening in Rwanda I made a mistake. I attempted to speak to my driver in French. My French is, at best, faltering, so I was not surprised when he answered me in English. “I do not speak French,” he said. He was, I guessed, one of the many anglophone Tutsis whose families fled the country in 1959 following a Belgian-inspired Hutu revolt. The children of these displaced Tutsis grew up in refugee camps in southern Uganda, Tanzania, Congo and in Burundi. They were born outside Rwanda but longed to return to the country they called home. Eventually, hundreds of thousands did so, but only once the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the guerrilla fighter Paul Kagame, had seized power at the end of the killing frenzy of 1994.

I made my second mistake by asking my driver if he was a Tutsi or Hutu. After a long pause, he explained that he did not know if he was a Tutsi or Hutu; all he knew was that he was Rwandan, and that was all that mattered. This would become a familiar refrain during my time in a country that is at once in flight from and in thrall to the recent past.

Rwanda has a long history of authoritarianism and has never been truly democratic. This former mountain kingdom was, for many centuries, what Ryszard Kapuscinski calls a closed state. “The Banyarwanda initiated no conquests,” he writes in The Shadow of the Sun,” and, like the Japanese at one time, they did not allow foreigners into their territory.” It was not until 1894 that Rwanda received its first European.

Today the control of Kagame’s RPF is as total as it was under the old pre-colonial Tutsi monarchy, and the country operates as a quasi-police state. But unlike the Hutu supremacist Juvenal Habyarimana, the former president who died when his plane was shot down on the night of 6 April 1994, precipitating a greater, more sustained and mass murder, Kagame preaches only ethnic unity and reconciliation. He preaches it so vigorously, and through every mechanism of public communication, that his people obediently preach the same message, too. I did not meet a single Tutsi survivor who did not profess to forgive the Hutu killers who are now slowly being reintegrated into civilian life.

It is easy to distinguish these killers, these perpetrators of genocide, for they must wear their pink prison shirts even as they return on community service to their home towns and villages. When I visited Butare, Rwanda’s second city, in the far south, these pink-shirted men were everywhere: on bicycles, riding in the backs of trucks, on street corners. Yet no one looked at them. No one shunned or abused them. They were simply allowed to be.

Kigali is, at least to the unknowing visitor, an extraordinarily serene city. It is a place of hills and lush, green vegetation, safe and calm. Travelling through the city, and in the mountainous, densely populated surrounding countryside, it seems inconceivable that such trauma and suffering could have taken place here so recently. But you do not have to search too hard to find reminders of this suffering: you need only look out the window of your car at the innumerable roadside graves and memorials, or move among the local population, who will lead you to children orphaned in the killing or to widows who were raped and infected with Aids, and who are now dying painfully.

Yet this is a remarkably resilient population. How else to explain the will to continue and the desire to forgive? How else to explain the reconstruction of a country in which most of its professional class were murdered and its infrastructure destroyed?

In Butare, I met Gemima Mukashyaka. She is 25 years old, a Tutsi. During what she calls the war her father, her mother and several of her sisters were murdered, either shot or slashed with machetes. She survived only through being taken as a “wife” by one of the Interaham we killers, perhaps one of the men who murdered her family. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she told me, speaking through a translator, “but the war destroyed my education.”

Gemima is a subsistence coffee farmer, one of 350 members of the Abahuzamugambi ba Kawa co-operative, which is supported by the London-based company Union Coffee Roasters. Each morning she works between 7 am and 11am on her plot, a thin-soiled patch on a hillside outside Butare. She then breaks for lunch and to clean her small house, where she lives alone without electricity. She returns in the evening to plant crops. She earns 70,000 Rwandan francs per year (about [pounds sterling]70). “I enjoy working on the land,” she said, “but farming is a last resort. If I had a chance to continue my education, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Gemima was raped repeatedly by the Interahamwe. In a way, she was lucky: she survived and she does not have Aids. “What happened was terrible,” she said. “But many of the killers have repented. They are genuinely sorry. We should forgive them for what happened. I feel what is happening through gacaca [the system of local tribunals through which the killers are tried and forgiven] is something good.”

Gemima speaks openly, honestly, but without animation. She is a beautiful young woman, slim and soft-featured, but there is intense sadness in her eyes, a sadness that cannot be disguised by her well-chosen words.

In Gisozi, a suburb of Kigali, there is a memorial site, a recently constructed museum of remembrance and education centre, water gardens and mass graves. The site was paid for and constructed by Aegis, a Nottingham-based genocide trust that is run by two brothers, Stephen and James Smith. The Smiths had no special connection to Rwanda, or indeed to Africa, but they were moved by the plight of Rwandans and felt compelled to act. In association with the Kagame government, they have worked tirelessly to establish two sites of “remembrance and civic education”, in Gisozi and at Murambi, in eastern Rwanda, where 50,000 people were massacred.

On the morning of 7 April, a ceremony of remembrance was held at the Gisozi monument, attended by many African leaders. The event was solemn and dignified, but overwhelmed by oppressive security and posturing. At times, it was as if the various African leaders, speeding across town in their dark-windowed limousines, and flanked by outriders, were competing to see whose arrival would be the most ostentatious. All of this had a curious hierarchy of its own: the most powerful of the leaders, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, inevitably arrived last, about 90 minutes after Paul Kagame.

Later, once Kagame had lit an eternal flame of remembrance, and the leaders had departed in their limousines, something extraordinary happened in Gisozi: thousands of people who had been watching events from a wary distance suddenly came down from the surrounding hillsides, or up from their homes below, and streamed past the security guards on the gate and into the site. There they gathered in silent tribute alongside the mass graves.

Something similarly spontaneous happened later that afternoon during the main ceremony at the national stadium. Before Kagame made his widely criticised speech, in which he rightly condemned the French for their support of the Hutu dictatorship of Habyarimana and for their complicity in genocide, several survivors gave their testimonies. The testimonies were interrupted by sounds of uncontrolled weeping and screaming from parts of the crowd. It was as if many of these Rwandans, several of whom were carried out after fainting, could no longer bear to contemplate the memory of what had happened, as if what had happened ten years earlier was not the promised end, but the mere image of that horror—a horror from which they would never be free.

Earlier that morning, in Gisozi, I had met Fergal Keane, the BBC journalist. Keane, the author of Season of Blood, a fine book about the genocide, was despondent about prospects for democracy in Rwanda. Like many western reporters, he thought that Kagame was corrupt and that, under him, the country was being run by a clique of Ugandan Tutsis, with whom Kagame had grown up and once fought alongside. “Kagame has no ethnic agenda,” Keane told me. “It’s simply about power—about holding on to power. He’s a Leninist of the kind not seen by Africa before. But you cannot ignore 85 per cent of the population. His hold on power will be secure for ten, perhaps for 20 years, but the real trouble will come when the second generation of post-genocide Hutus emerge from the universities ...”

When I later mentioned these remarks to Hilary Benn, he said: “Good progress is being made here in Rwanda. The elections took place. They were not perfect, but they took place. And one cannot overestimate the impact of the genocide on this country, the trauma of what happened. I agree that there needs to be an opening up of the political space in Rwanda, but I understand why people might be fearful about what might flow into that political space if it is opened up too quickly.”

Benn, I think, is right, and Fergal Keane is, for once, wrong. The austere and ascetic Kagame may be an autocrat; his Tutsi-led RPF troops may have committed atrocities of their own, against retreating Hutus in 1994 and during the two Congo wars; and the country he leads may not be free in any recognisable western sense. But he is the right leader at the right time, the first Rwandan president to abolish the ethnic divisions institutionalised by the loathed Belgian colonialists. Surely, too, the last thing this traumatised nation requires right now is free markets, an open society and robust democratic pluralism. What it needs, rather, is stability and a period of benign authoritarianism—and it needs its new friends, donor countries such as Britain, to monitor its progress and ensure development money is being spent wisely. Above all, this aid-dependent country of eight million people and of scant natural resources and even less land needs never to feel abandoned again, especially when, in the years ahead, the population continues to grow, claustrophobia intensifies and the old tensions return.

The Long Twilight of New Labour

March 29 2004 / New Statesman

Returning to America after an absence of 20 years, Henry James wrote, in The American Scene (1907), of his unease at the arrival in New York of so many non-English-speaking Jews from Europe. He observed them on the street, in shops and together in their neighbourhoods and ghettos, and feared not only for the future of America but for the English language itself, especially the language of literature. “There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds.”

James was disconcerted by what he considered to be these new arrivals’ sense of “settled possession”, which he found “presumptuous, monstrous”, and which contrasted with his own feelings of unsettled possession. He regretted how established Americans would inevitably be forced into a kind of surrendered acceptance of cultural difference. “We must go, in other words, more than half-way to meet them; which is all the difference, for us, between possession and dispossession. This sense of dispossession haunted me.”

Following the often lurid debate about immigration and multiculturalism in this country, one sometimes feels that it is not the recent arrivals but the settled peoples of these islands who, like Henry James, feel most dispossessed, as if they are unable to understand, or feel powerless to prevent, what is happening around them.

But what exactly is happening? How rapidly and by how much is Britain really changing? We are ceaselessly told that ours is a multiracial and multicultural society. It is certainly multiracial—and all the better for it—but what does it really mean to speak of a multicultural society? Does a multicultural society mean simply a broad tolerance of difference and respect for minority cultures and traditions? Or does it mean something more assertive—the establishment, for instance, of more religious schools in Britain, of children being increasingly taught in separate religious and racial communities?

Early one Saturday afternoon at the end of February, I was travelling south on the London Underground from Tottenham Hale to King’s Cross. Sitting opposite me in the carriage of our Victoria Line train were two women of Middle Eastern appearance. They were wearing the Muslim hijab or veil and speaking very quietly in Arabic, as if embarrassed at being overheard. In the same carriage were three young black women, who, judging from their conversation, were Nigerian. They were speaking “pidgin”—a vibrant, energetic hybrid of English and, I think, Yoruba. Their hair was worn in crisp braids and threaded with intricate wooden beads. Also in the carriage were two men in their twenties, one black and the other white. The white guy, I gathered, was from a Greek-Cypriot family, but his accent was entirely local. He and his friend were both clamorous Cockneys. Beneath their jackets, they were wearing Arsenal shirts.

At the next stop, a young woman, a poor Romanian or Albanian, entered the carriage. She was wearing a headscarf, a ragged shawl and cradled a baby in her arms. She held out her hand and patiently asked each person for money. Each time, she was ignored; at the next stop, she left the train, only to be replaced by a gang of about ten youths, who, I guessed from their dark hair and scruffy swarthiness, were from the southern Balkans. They were loud, they refused to sit down, and they spoke a language I did not recognise.

Watching these boys from the Balkans as they jostled and scrapped, I did not feel threatened or uncomfortable, but I did have a strong sense of how London was being changed by the new multiculturalism and by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from parts of the world that had little or no affiliation to the old empire. What was taking place deep underground on this Saturday afternoon was a characteristically contemporary London scene: boisterous, polyglot, multiethnic, harmonious.

But it would not have been possible seven years ago: the forces of globalisation, more porous borders, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the need for cheap labour, Islamic militancy, inexpensive air travel, and a second wave of mass, asylum-driven immigration mean that this is not the country it was when Labour returned to power in 1997. Something fundamental about the country has changed and is continuing to change, with theresult that it is perhaps no longer possible, indeed comprehensible, even to speak of a common British culture. Instead, we have a multiplicity of cultures, some complementary, others discrete or rivalrous.

The majority culture—anglophone, tolerant, broadly liberal, sceptical, Christian in ethos if not in practice—remains strong. But other cultures are threatening and subverting it, forcing concessions and change. Much of this change is good—such as the recognition of the rights of minorities or a respect for racial difference. But there are also areas of more problematic conflict, where the recognition of minority-group rights and identities, and the demand for exemptions from national laws, clash with a broader liberal consensus on, say, animal rights or women’s freedom.

The new cultural clash is experienced most acutely in inner-city state schools, where children from so many different ethnic backgrounds, and for whom English is often a second language, are brought uneasily together. Education is the front line where teachers and governors fight daily culture wars, in a country that has an established Church, which privileges one religion and one culture, but also has a growing and increasingly assertive Muslim minority that demands equality and legitimacy for Islam.

Britain has a strong tradition of secular government. It has, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out (above), managed to marginalise the Christian religion “by making it into a shy adjunct of the secular state”, which has led to the withering away of religious instruction in many schools. But many Muslims, who view Islam as a revolutionary force in their lives, want their children to receive a religious education. For them, religion is not a once-weekly recreation; it is an entire politics for living.

In France, where there are perhaps six million Muslims (one-tenth of the population), the response from the state to the new multiculturalism has been to reassert the secular ideals of the Republic. This has led to the outlawing of the hijab and other obvious religious symbols in schools.

In multinational, multi-ethnic Britain, we are taught a kind of civic patriotism. From the melancholy long withdrawing roar of empire, we have learnt humility and restraint. Our sense of national identity is not based on ethnicity, on the cult of blood and soil or racial superiority. It is far more subtle and more allusive. The British way is one of resolute pragmatism, reactionary yet progressive, respectful of tradition and the accumulated wisdom of past generations, as embodied in our institutions, but also alert to the need for constant change. Our civil war was a very long time ago and our revolution was glorious.

We are not, as are the French, committed to revolutionary ideals of equality and liberty, which is why the hijab or indeed the turban would never be banned in British schools. Nor are we suspicious of the politics of the “communautaires”—communities that have separate and potentially separatist values from those of the Republic. All this, as well as the absence of a written constitution and the fragmentary nature of the British state itself, makes us endlessly adaptable—and flexible. This sense of adaptability, as well as of soft nationalism, explains in part why Britain has hitherto so successfully integrated so many new arrivals from the Caribbean, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

The culture and the way of life of this nation, of any nation, are best understood not through grand political abstractions, but through its songs, jokes, customs, clothes, food, and games. There is something indefinable, even mystical, about national identity: we know what Britishness is, we would defend it under duress, but we would be hard-pressed to define it coherently.

It is this sense of mysterious togetherness, of a continuity of collective consciousness through time, that cultural pessimists fear is being weakened by the second wave of mass immigration, and which led the liberal intellectual David Goodhart, in an essay in Prospect, to complain that we are now too diverse. The American social policy thinker Robert Putnam has also written of how too much ethnic and cultural diversity not only weakens community ties; it weakens trust and fellow feeling, it weakens the desire to redistribute wealth because you no longer feel even the loosest affinity for those most in need. Putnam wants to see the isolated, atomised individual reintegrated into wider society, but fears that society, as once understood, no longer exists—that in our diversity we have lost our sense of common purpose and greater community.

As a child growing up in Essex in the 1970s, I knew only cultural certainties. The headmaster of my old school, a veteran of the Spanish civil war, was a socialist and atheist. “The human being,” he once told me, “is a blank sheet of paper on which any future identity can be written.” Once a week we would gather in the main hall, with its smooth, thickly varnished wooden floor, for morning assembly. We would begin by saying the Lord’s Prayer and then sing some hymns, before settling down to listen to the headmaster as he warned us about the dangers of sloth or cigarettes. He never spoke about religion.

My school was largely monocultural and monoethnic—there were two black brothers, whose parents were from the Caribbean, seven or eight Hong Kong Chinese, a Turkish Cypriot and two girls of Indian subcontinental origin. One of these girls, I recall, would sit out the morning assembly and, at the time, I could never understand why. But my school was progressive. We did not have religious education classes in which we studied the Bible; we had something called moral studies, which was a bit like reading Polly Toynbee’s columns in the Guardian: worthy but dull. These classes, I understand now, were an early concession to multiculturalism and an attempt by our socialist headmaster to fulfil certain obligations while avoiding explicit Christian instruction.

It also meant that the little Pakistani girl who missed morning assembly was quite comfortable about attending these classes.

The late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was at school, were a period of continuous dispute: the consensus politics of the postwar settlement was unravelling, there was social and civic unrest, and punk and early Thatcherism were, in their different but interrelated ways, expressions of a wider cultural disaffection, Bolshevik movements that sought renewal through radical discontinuity from the recent past.

To attend a football match at this time was to have a powerful sense that something was seriously wrong in the country: the atmosphere was invariably violent, raucous, chauvinistic and, above all, racist.

Today, by contrast, football, certainly at the highest level, is a model of cosmopolitan integration, an indicator that rapid, progressive, cultural and social change is possible. To watch Arsenal—with their French manager and their flamboyant squad of international talent—is to understand the power and attraction of multiculturalism, of diversity, hybridity and cultural slippage. Arsenal are a kind of Platonic ideal—the ultimate form of the possible.

Elsewhere, far away from Highbury, out on the streets of the more impoverished areas of London, in the ghettos of the old Lancashire mill towns, or in the small, introspective towns and villages of Middle England, one has little sense of truly cosmopolitan integration. Rather, one has a sense of people retreating into suspicious, self-contained communities.

In his book Culture and Equality: an egalitarian critique of multiculturalism (Harvard University Press), Brian Barry argues that too often “culture” can be a site of oppression—for women condemned to live unrealised lives, for animals ritually slaughtered, and for children abused in accordance with superstition or religious practice. True liberalism, he argues, is not about granting special “group-differentiated rights, privileges and entitlements”, but about enforcing citizenship and equality of opportunity for all before the law. Cultural pluralism, Barry writes, can lead to uneasy compromise and concession to private dogma in the public sphere. What are the obligations of a liberal society to those who reject liberal principles?

Barry, I suspect, would approve of the French decision to ban the hijab in schools as a reassertion of the common purpose of republican citizenship. But the banning of the hijab will solve nothing in France. The brilliant and increasingly influential young francophone philosopher Tariq Ramadan defines multiculturalism as the “Islamisation of modernity”. In France, multiculturalism is beginning to stand for—if it stands for anything at all—a divisive and negative form of revolt.

What is often forgotten or ignored in the debate about multiculturalism is that most countries in the world are multiethnic and genuinely multicultural, and must thus strive to rule by racial consensus. There are exceptions—Japan, South Korea, China, where the Han Chinese make up between 85 and 90 per cent of the population. But in the main, an important part of what it means to be human is to understand and adapt to cultural difference—ethnic, racial, tribal, linguistic, religious, territorial.

Arriving in England for the first time in the 1950s, the South African-born writer Dan Jacobson was relieved to find himself at last in the imperial metropolis, a place he could not call home, but to which he felt a deep attachment. In an essay, “Time of Arrival” (1962), he wrote of looking for a room in Hampstead and of how many notices carried discouraging messages such as “Gentiles Only” or “No Coloureds”.

“When I came here,” he says now, “England struck me as a country bound together, even made up by, a network of reciprocal ‘allusions’ (it was the only word I could think of): localities, institutions, festivals, foods, character-types, historical references and antagonisms, class indicators and suchlike. People took this network for granted, yet also half-consciously acted up to the expectations it fostered; they recognised one another through it and used it to place others in various categories—acceptable/not acceptable; belonging/not belonging. Together, it all led to the sense I had of ‘Englishness’ as something private, reserved, semiinstinctive, inherently resistant to foreign intrusions. Anyway, whether I was right or wrong about it, I thought it distinctive and interesting; and have no doubt it has taken a battering over the past half-century. But the irony—of which, as a ‘colonial’, I was always conscious—is that this same, seemingly private, reserved form of life had no hesitation in thrusting itself into other people’s territories, no matter how distant they might be, and ruling them as if by God-given right. This now gives an extra impetus to the wash-back of migration the country is experiencing.”

Jacobson, in the 1950s, could not believe that the reserved, allusive people among whom he had come to live would tolerate mass immigration. But they did and, in the main, Britain, despite its residue of serious racism, is becoming one of the most relaxed and harmonious multi-ethnic societies in the world, not least because the majority culture remains so robust and so adept at appropriating new influences and in creating new multiple identities. So just as new English cuisine has become a globalised identity, merging ingredients and styles of cooking from India, China, the Pacific Rim and from continental Europe to create what is still recognisably British food, so what it means to be British itself has become increasingly fluid and interchangeable. Yet something recognisable remains, some substratum of habit and feeling that underlies all change, and it is this mysterious something that is most valuable and gives meaning and definition to life in Britain.

Will this mysterious something endure? When Henry James left New York in 1904 to continue his travels along the east coast of America, he did so with foreboding. The “ethnic synthesis” he witnessed on the streets of Manhattan had troubled him—“here was multiplication with a vengeance”. He wrote of his “lettered anguish”, and it was as if he were already mourning the loss of the linguistic tradition he most valued. He was certain that “the accent of the ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful on the globe ... but ... we shall not know it for English—in any sense for which there is an existing literary measure.”

Yet the commanding novelists of the 20th century American experience, certainly since the end of the Second World War, have been Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, sons of Jewish migrants and the result of this ethnic synthesis, and the man who wrote the definitive account of James’s own life, and one of the greatest of all literary biographies, was none other than Leon Edel, a Jew. The problem with prediction is that, as Enoch Powell discovered and Tony Blair is discovering most calamitously, we seldom know what we think we know. What we thought was so, was not so.

The Age of Anxiety

July 21 2003 / New Statesman

Visions of apocalypse, once confined to science fiction, now dominate mainstream films and novels. They have become young, smart, even beautiful.

I was at school in the 1970s, a period I recall as one of deep social and political unease. In our old bipolar world, split between rival ideological blocs, we watched innumerable television plays about the nuclear threat or life after an atomic war; we discussed with our teachers, most of whom were anxious members of CND, the dangers of the bomb. In those days, we all lived with the threat of apocalypse. We knew that our world could end at any moment, destroyed not by natural disaster or by the intervention of a malevolent deity, but by man himself. For the first time in history, we knew that we had the capacity and the desire to enact our own mass destruction. The motif of those times was an acute watchfulness; narratives of spying and surveillance were what preoccupied us, and I remember pleading with my father to build a bunker in our garden.

Yet I also remember being told at school that once the Soviet threat was vanquished, we would enjoy the benefits of the leisure age: by the year 2000 we would be travelling around in space-age buggies, dressing in tracksuits or something equally hideous, and sitting back while a robot did most of the housework. When we were not holidaying on the moon, we would be travelling briskly across whole continents in supersonic aircraft.

The revolutions of 1989 in central and eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to offer the prospect of something like that better, safer world coming true. We were, according to Francis Fukuyama and other western triumphalists, at a period of rest—the end of history—when most of us, certainly those living in the democratic west, could enjoy sustained peace and prosperity. If history had taught us anything, it was that all schemes to remake the world were doomed to fail. We would have to learn to live with inequality and imperfection. Free-market liberal democracy was the only legitimate form of government, because it offered the greatest possibility of wealth, health and happiness to the greatest number of people, and, what was more, no two democracies had ever gone to war against each other. This was the founding myth of our new world order.

The internet and the cellphone, the growth of cheap air travel, the sustained stock market boom created a kind of euphoria that not even the genocide in Rwanda or the wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia could diminish. We had entered the age of globalisation when everyone, it seemed, just wanted to have fun and to become rich and in which everyone could speak the common languages of pop music and football.

Today we are once more living through what Don DeLillo, at the recent Hay-on-Wye literary festival, described as a “period of darkness”. The events of 11 September 2001, the collapse of the so-called new economy, the catastrophic spread of Aids throughout much of Africa, China, Asia and European Russia, the emergence of new wind-borne viruses such as Sars, the devastating potential of science and technology, the opaque and oppressive power of multinational corporations, the dominance of the media, the fear of bioterrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the instability in the Middle East, and the hard truth of American power have all contributed to a souring of mood and vision.

Some may see hope in a new era of liberal imperialism but, in truth, there is a terrible tension in the world. Fewer and fewer people believe in the benefits of progress or in grand schemes to remake the world for the better. It is rare to meet anyone, especially scientists or philosophers, who believe that the future will be better than the past. It will be different, for sure, but better? Instead, there is a new quietism, a resignation even. Influential figures such as Martin Rees, one of our most distinguished astronomers and a former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, are convinced that we may have entered our final century on the planet. Through the website, Rees is waging $1,000 that more than one million people will be killed in a single act of bioterrorism, or bio-error, by 2020. Is this claim no more than an elaborate stunt to advertise his latest book, Our Final Century? Or is he deadly serious about the threat posed by the new mobile terrorist kill ing squads of the 21st century?

In Our Final Century, Rees shows how science has developed its own momentum and it is as if we are no longer able to control it. Rather, science controls us, challenging our most fundamental sense, as J G Ballard has written, of who we are and what we might become. If we once thought that science would liberate us from all mundane constraint—making our lives freer, happier and less complicated—we now believe the opposite: that we are, in some way, prisoners of science, powerless to prevent its hold over our lives. For science increasingly alters the way we think about the world and about ourselves: we know that it can be a source of both liberation and destruction. Once you have invented anew technology—such as e-mail, or a precision-guided missile—the temptation to use it becomes irresistible, which may partly explain the American enthusiasm for war. Just look at our toys, boys!

What does the left have to say about all of this? Chastened by Thatcherism and a long cycle of defeat and internal dispute, the British left has long ceased to believe that History was moving in its direction, or that there was, in the classic Hegelian sense, a clear purpose and pattern to events. In retreat from the economic imperatives of the free market, the left, throughout much of the 1980s, concentrated less on macro than on micro issues—issues of race, gender and sexuality. Eschatology was supplanted by pragmatism. Evolutionary biology and advances in genetic science further conspired to undermine traditional liberal humanism: there is, after all, something called human nature, and we are all driven by impulses and forces that we can never fully understand. This, together with the general acceptance that we are no longer in control of, but subject to, the random drift of events, has resulted in a new pessimism about government and its influence over our lives.

In The Sense of an Ending (1967), Frank Kermode reminded us that there was nothing new about apocalyptic thinking. “It is commonplace,” he wrote, “to talk about our historical situation as uniquely terrible and in a way privileged, a cardinal point in time. But can it really be so? It seems doubtful that our crisis, our relation to the future and to the past, is one of the important differences between us and our predecessors. Many of them felt as we do… Perhaps if we have a terrible privilege it is merely that we are alive and are going to die, all at once or one at a time. Other people have noticed this, and expressed their feelings about it in images different from ours, armies in the sky, for example, or a palpable Antichrist; and these we have discarded.”

Kermode was broadly right, I think, to point out how prone we are to exaggerate the monumentality of our own particular moment, and our tendency to distort and embellish each crisis so that it must become a pre-eminent crisis, distinct from what has gone before. And yet I cannot help feeling that our world-historic moment is, in one important sense, different. The generation that grew up after the Second World War and experienced the onset of a consumer society and the freedoms of the 1 960s was perhaps the most optimistic in history. Everything around them seemed to be changing so rapidly and, on the whole, for the better. These children of the space age believed in progress, in the liberating potential of science and technology, and in the promise of the future, even if that future was shadowed by the bomb nobody dared use. They believed all this because science was such a progressive force in their own lives; it was the means through which they were able to escape the domestic drudgery and social immobilit y of the recent past.

It doesn’t really feel like that today. The imminent end of Concorde and the experiment in supersonic travel, as well as the recent space shuttle disaster, have served to reinforce the conviction that we are marooned on this earth. If there is life out there in distant galaxies, it is, humanly, unreachable. Our ambition may be infinite but its expression will remain a slave to limit. This planet earth is, in effect, all we have and shall ever know. Our natural condition is therefore one of ontological shipwreck: we can send messages out into deepest space but they will never be received.

Yet the unease of the present makes this a rather good moment to be a writer or artist. Art at its best should reflect the times in which we live. It is a representative medium—nature’s mirror. The purpose of an ambitious novel or film is to document the present, to offer a sense of the defining particulars of the age—its tensions and preoccupations, its corruptions and opportunities. It should carry an imprint of the culture in which we live. If nothing else, it should bring us news of what it means to be here, now.

This year both Don DeLillo, in Cosmopolis, a study of the last hours of a young, jaded billionaire bond dealer in New York, and Margaret Atwood, in Oryx and Crake, her portrayal of a world destroyed by war and scientific irresponsibility, published novels shadowed by a sense of an ending. Both writers had begun their novels before the events of 11 September 2001, but found that, in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, their vision had darkened and that they were writing not about the near future, but parables of the present.

In Oryx and Crake and, indeed, in Michel Houellebecq’s great novel Atomised, genetically engineered clones have replaced the flawed and deluded Homo sapiens as the dominant creatures on the planet. Humans, we understand, were simultaneously so intelligent and so foolish that they were able to invent the means of their own destruction—namely, in the case of Atwood’s novel, a super-Ebola GM virus.

Visions of apocalypse have long been the preoccupation of science fiction. But through the novels of Atwood, DeLillo and Douglas Coupland (his latest, Hey Nostradamus!, is about a spree killing at a school in Vancouver), through current films such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, and through television dramas such as the BBC’s recent The Day Britain Stopped, which convincingly imagined the complete collapse of the British transport infrastructure, the themes of so much science fiction—solitary survivors on a contaminated planet, catastrophe, genetic modification, superbugs, post-apocalyptic landscapes, bioterrorism—are becoming part of our mainstream entertainment culture. These works offer artistic expression of what, for many of us in the age of al-Qaeda and nanotechnology; are our most subterranean fears and anxieties.

Directed by Boyle from a script by Alex Garland, 28 Days Later is set in a recognisable England in which all but a few people have been killed by a virus, which escaped into the general population following a raid by animal rights activists on a Cambridge laboratory. Those that have been “infected” by the virus but are yet to die roam a decaying urban landscape, driven only by vulgar motivation. One scene early in the film shows a young man waking from a coma to find himself completely alone in a London that, 28 days earlier and before he was injured in a road accident, was vibrant and boisterous with people. There is a stunned, dreamlike quality to his wanderings through these empty city streets.

The hero of the film is an emblematic last man, familiar from the fictions of J G Ballard. He meets up with a young black woman and, accompanied by an orphaned girl, they travel north in search of a fortified settlement where, it is believed, a group of soldiers—who, like them, are uninfected—are living in frightened isolation. 28 Days Later dares to imagine what the world might be like without any people in it; it is a cautionary film, which, as with the dramas of the 1970s about the bomb, is concerned with strategies of human survival in a desolated world, where the future has been put on permanent hold. There is, however, nothing implausible about this film. How can there be, when President Bush goes on national television to deny that he has been infected by anthrax?

In the remarkable Donnie Darko, a disaffected adolescent living in small-town suburban America is visited by a giant rabbit, which may or may not exist. The rabbit warns him that the world will end in—yes, you guessed it—28 days. The film—as, before it, did Coupland’s hallucinatory novel Girlfriend in a Coma—combines a zany pop-cultural sensibility with a stranger and more sombre realisation that the world is somehow out of joint and that something has gone drastically, irreversibly, wrong. The disturbed student spends much of the film dreaming of destruction. He longs for a single apocalyptic event that will cleanse the world and allow him and everyone he knows to redeem the mistakes of the past and to start all over again. When that event eventually arrives, the agent of change in his life and those around him is far more frightening and mysterious than even he could have imagined.

The pop soundtrack of Donnie Darko is from the 1980s—gloomy British bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Tears for Fears—but the new Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief, would have been just as appropriate. Radiohead are, by some distance, our brainiest and most consistently experimental rock band, and Hail to the Thief—enraged, despairing, ironic, visionary—is, in mood and attitude, at one with the apocalyptic turn in our contemporary culture. What is significant about so much of the new apocalyptic thinking is that it is largely an expression of youthful perplexity rather than of late-middle-age reaction. The new apocalyptists are young, smart, fashionable and, above all, driven by eschatological anxiety. They are also Romantics: their fantasies of the end often have a peculiar beauty—Donnie Darko and 28 Days Later are among the most visually sumptuous films of recent times.

The result of all this experimentation is that the boundaries between science fiction and literary fiction are collapsing. Soon none of us will be able to distinguish between realism and science fiction, between the plausible and the implausible in art—because, after the events of 11 September 2001 and what has happened since, nothing in the world seems implausible any more. Anything is possible—including the Big End.

Letter from Iceland: imaginary landscapes

December 16 2002 / New Statesman

In 1936, W H Auden spent a summer in Iceland with his friend and fellow poet Louis MacNeice. The letters and poems they wrote that summer and sent home to Richard Crossman and Christopher Isherwood, among others, offer not only a fascinating record of their own youthful enthusiasms and obsessions but also a record of Iceland itself, a country which was then perhaps the most isolated, impoverished and introverted in Europe.

For the adolescent Auden, Iceland was “holy ground”: a landscape of mystery and dreams. When he finally arrived there, at the age of 29, the reality he encountered “verified his dreams”, but there were infinite irritations. In his letters home, Auden mocked the mediocrity and shabbiness of the architecture, the gloom of the locals, and the awful food—the bitter soups, the dried fish, the overcooked mutton and, a speciality, the rotten shark pickled in sour milk. This was a time of great upheaval in Europe—the civil war had begun in Spain, Hitler was ascendant—but Auden could discover little of what was happening elsewhere in the world. “Reykjavik,” he wrote, “is the worst possible sort of provincial town as far as amusing oneself is concerned, and there was nothing to do but soak in the only hotel with a licence.”

When Auden returned to Iceland in 1964, he found that things had changed beyond all expectation. The country was now a fully independent republic and a member of Nato; military occupation, first by the British and then by the Americans, had brought a greater prosperity and outward curiosity. But the Icelanders, Auden noted, “have not—not yet—become vulgar”.

What, one wonders, would he have made of contemporary Iceland? To visit the country today, especially the vibrant capital, Reykjavik, is to discover that the vexed word “globalisation” might have some meaning after all: there are restaurants specialising in “fusion”, Mexican, Chinese and “Californian-Tuscan” food; there are designer boutiques and sports bars with banks of screens showing English football; there are hectic nightclubs, elegant coffee shops and internet cafes; there are strip malls, cinemas showing the latest Hollywood releases and bookshops open until midnight, where you can buy any European newspaper of your choice on the day of your choice. Everyone you meet speaks English with an impressive, idiomatic fluency. Young people look very much as they do in New York or London: cool, aloof and knowingly fashionable. In fact, you could be in any modern city anywhere in the developed world were it not that alcohol were so prohibitively expensive and the surrounding landscape so thrillingly, disorientatingly strange.

The most popular time to visit Iceland is during the long white nights of summer, when the bars and clubs of central Reykjavik never seem to close and the days can often be warm and dry. But summer in Reykjavik is a time of oppressive congestion: there are too many backpackers in search of the local “vibe”, as celebrated in the novel (and subsequent film) 101 Reykjavik; too many people believing that they will encounter Bjork, Damon Albarn or Jarvis Cocker in a coffee shop—in truth, several years have passed since Albarn lived in the city, and Bjork is now resident in New York.

Early winter in Iceland, before it becomes too cold, is different. I visited in late November, before the pre-Christmas rush, and it was a thrill to hire a car and drive out along empty roads to what is known as the Golden Triangle—the area where, within a few square miles, you find spouting hot springs, including the Great Geyser, the Gullfoss waterfalls and a surrounding near-lunar landscape of canyons, craters and caves.

In summer, tourists are bused out to the Golden Triangle in their breathless thousands; but when I was there, on a wet, misty Monday afternoon, I was quite alone as I stood, in baffled contemplation, beside Gullfoss falls. The black-barren lava fields, the sheer cliffs and gleaming glaciers, the geothermal springs and surging waterfalls, the pristine glacial valleys and high mountain lakes, the volcanic disturbance and threat of earthquakes, the persistent smell of sulphur, the complete absence of trees: travelling through Iceland you never cease to marvel at the strangeness of this landscape, or cease to wonder that people live here.

The Guardian journalist James Meek has described Iceland as being like “one of those science fiction dystopias portrayed in the films of the 1960s and 1970s, when everyone lives comfortable, prosperous, safe lives providing they do not question society’s darker secrets”. It is a good description because there is something genuinely mysterious about this country that defies neat explanation. Despite the rotten weather, the darkness (in winter, there is virtually no daylight at all), the continual sleet and sea fogs, life in Reykjavik is very comfortable. The economy may still be over-reliant on fishing, but there is full employment, life expectancy is among the highest in Europe, the liberalisation of the financial markets has produced a new entrepreneurial spirit among the young and educational standards are high. Above all. Iceland is the closest we have to a genuinely classless society in Europe.

Yet still the intelligent young are leaving, particularly for America. Icelandic literature, beginning with the incomparable sagas written in the 13th and early 14th centuries, is simultaneously preoccupied with themes of arrival and departure. Indeed, there is an entire literature of exile—and the longing for home among Icelanders is profound.

How could it be otherwise, when the landscape of home is so sublime and so sacred?

The Search for Dr Bloch

October 1 2002 / Granta, 79

Early in 1943, an operative of the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, the wartime precursor of the CIA, made his way to an unkempt attic apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Creston Avenue, the Bronx. The operative, Walter C. Langer, was compiling what would become the world’s first psychological profile of Adolf Hitler, and that day he took with him Gertrude Kurth, a psychotherapist who was also acting as his translator. Together they climbed the stairs to see a seventy-one-year-old doctor who two years earlier had fled from Austria to New York: a Jew, Dr Eduard Bloch. Dr Bloch had an interesting story to tell. He had known Hitler at first hand; nearly forty years before he had been the Hitler family’s doctor. He had treated Hitler’s mother, Klara, during her final illness, as well as the young Hitler himself for various routine ailments. Obviously, in any study of Hitler’s personality the evidence of such an intimate witness to illness and trauma-his mother’s death had grieved Hitler deeply-could be important. No less interesting-though its relevance to Langer’s research might be debatable-was Dr Bloch’s account of how he had escaped the usual fate of Austrian Jews in 1940. Hitler personally, he told Langer and Kurth, had intervened to allow his departure.

In other words, he was a Jew who had been saved by Hitler-from Hitler. This became the conundrum of his life.

What Bloch told Langer in his two interviews with him-a second conversation occurred a few weeks later-can be found in the OSS’s Hitler profile, a 300-page document which was declassified only in 2001, and which, with its disquisitions on Hitler’s voice, eye-colour, childhood and uneasy sexuality, prefigured an entire industry of lurid psycho-historical speculation. Titled A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler: His Life and Legend, the document is organized into five parts: 1) Hitler-as he believes himself to be; 2) Hitler-as the German people know him; 3) Hitler-as his associates know him; 4) Hitler-as he knows himself; 5) Psychological analysis and reconstruction (with a long concluding subsection on his ‘probable behaviour in the future’). There is an extensive bibliography and a complementary sourcebook, in which Langer discusses the reliability of much of the evidence on which he has been working.

From his comments in the sourcebook, it is clear that Langer was as sceptical as he was intrigued by the doctor’s remarkable story. It wasn’t the first time Bloch had told it. Soon after he reached New York in January 1941, Bloch had given a long, detailed interview about his experiences with the Hitler family to Collier’s, the weekly magazine. The interview was published over two weeks in March that year in the form of a piece in the first person (‘as told to J. D. Ratcliff’). America was then neutral in the European war; Pearl Harbor was still nine months away. By the time Langer met Bloch, however, Hitler was no longer a merely disquieting transatlantic phenomenon. The world had come to know him, as Langer wrote in his introduction to the profile, for his ‘insatiable greed for power, his ruthlessness, cruelty and utter lack-of-feeling, his contempt for established institutions and his lack of moral restraints’.

Langer didn’t doubt that Hitler would one day be defeated, and moral order restored. But how to prevent ‘similar eruptions’ in the future? There was only one clear answer: ‘We must discover the psychological streams which nourish this destructive state of mind in order that we may divert them into channels which will permit a further evolution of our form of civilization.’

A meeting with Bloch offered Langer an opportunity to paddle in these psychological streams, to return to the primal scene of Hitler’s childhood and adolescence and to what the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper later called ‘the darkest, the most formative, and therefore in some sense, the most interesting period’ of Hitler’s life. Langer believed that Bloch was particularly well placed to provide insight into the years, sometimes since mythologized as the missing years, when, from 1908 to 1913, Hitler was a striving but unsuccessful young painter in Vienna. And what did Bloch tell him? That Hitler had been ‘a nice pleasant youth’.

‘Favours were granted me which I feel sure were accorded no other Jew in all Germany and Austria,’ he told Langer. Hitler had honoured an earlier promise of gratitude for the doctor’s care of his mother; he had helped him escape persecution in Austria and smoothed his passage to America. There is no other reported instance of Hitler intervening to save the life of, or of extending compassion to, a Jew, certainly not once he took power in Germany. In this, Bloch was uniquely chosen.

Dr Bloch was to remain forever a stranger to America. It wasn’t his natural home, nor did he wish it to be-it was where his life narrowed and reduced. To the end, he was a cosmopolitan servant of the old Habsburg empire, who is revealed in photographs to have an old world dandyish charm-a wide-brimmed hat, stiff collars, elaborate double cuffs, a cigarette in hand, a moustache that twisted at the edges like a bow tie. This is what we know about his early life. He was born in 1872 into an assimilated bourgeois Jewish family in Frauenburg, a small German-speaking village in southern Bohemia-which, he said, had been ‘under three flags’ in his lifetime: Austrian, Czechoslovakian and German. He studied medicine in Prague and then, once qualified as a general practitioner, he joined the Austrian army as a military doctor. In 1899, he was ‘ordered to Linz’, the provincial capital of Upper Austria and the home town of Adolf Hitler, where, on completing his army service, he decided to stay on; in 1903, he married a local Jewish girl, Emilie Kafka, a distant relative of Franz Kafka, and opened his own public practice.

In the course of this story I went to Linz, and there the town archivist, Dr Joseph Mayrhofer, showed me a photograph taken on a March day in 1938 when Hitler returned to his home town after an absence of thirty years. As a young man, he had dreamed of rebuilding the town on a monumental scale, so that Linz would become one day not just an architectural rival to Budapest and Vienna, but the city on the Danube, a place of colossal dimensions. In the photograph Hitler stands in his open-topped, six-wheeled Mercedes-Benz at the head of a motorcade which is moving along the main street, the Landstrasse. A crowd in the street salutes the Führer; even people in the windows above have raised their arms. A closer inspection of the picture shows that it was taken as the motorcade reached 25 Landstrasse, which means that Hitler was about to pass directly beneath the upstairs window of a fine baroque house, 12 Landstrasse, where Eduard Bloch happened to be watching. The two men had last seen each other after the funeral of Klara Hitler, at the end of 1907.

In the photograph, Hitler’s face seems to be fixed in that very direction, upwards, to his right, and ahead. Who is it he sees up there? What absorbs him? Dr Bloch thought he knew. ‘It was a moment of tense excitement,’ he told Collier’s. ‘For years Hitler had been denied the right to visit the country of his birth. Now that country belonged to him. The elation that he felt was written on his features. He smiled, waved, gave the Nazi salute to the people that crowded the street. Then, for a moment, he glanced at my window. I doubt that he saw me but he must have had a moment of reflection. Here was the home of the Edeljude who had diagnosed his mother’s fatal cancer; here was the consultation room of the man who had treated his sisters; here was the place he had gone as a boy to have his minor ailments attended to. It was a brief moment. Then the procession was gone. It moved slowly into the town square-once Franz Joseph Platz, soon to be renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. He spoke from the balcony of the town hall. Historic words: Germany and Austria were now one.’

Edeljude: a noble Jew. Bloch told Langer of how in 1937 a group of local Nazi supporters from Linz had visited Hitler at his mountain villa at Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. ‘The Führer asked for news of Linz,’ Bloch said. ‘How was the town? Were people there supporting him? He asked for news of me. Was I still alive, still practising? Then he made a statement irritating to the local Nazis: “Dr Bloch,” said Hitler, “is an Edeljude-a noble Jew. If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question.”’

Dr Bloch and his wife Emilie reached New York from Lisbon on January 8, 1941, aboard a small Spanish liner, the Marqués de Comillas. Their daughter and only child, Gertrude (Trude), had reached New York with her husband eighteen months before. She earned money as a cleaner while her husband, Frank Kren, who like Bloch had practised as a doctor in Linz, studied for the qualifications that would enable him to work as a doctor in America. The Krens lived with their two young children, George and Joanne, in a five-room flat at 2755 Creston Avenue in the north Bronx, which also became home to Bloch and his wife. Bloch, unlike his son-in-law, was too old to continue as a doctor, and he spoke only rudimentary English. He spent many of his afternoons at the cinema, watching westerns. And then somehow he came to the attention, or brought himself to the attention, of Collier’s magazine. Perhaps, as an obscure old man in a strange country-in Linz, he had been a known and respected individual in the middle class community-he wanted to claim some importance, some celebrity. In the Collier’s pieces, he speaks as though he were already famous. During his passage across the Atlantic, for example, he describes an episode when his ship was stopped by ‘British control officers’ aboard a trawler. The passengers were assembled in the main lounge and their papers examined by the British officers. ‘There was a feeling of tenseness,’ Bloch said, as the officers made their way down the line. Finally they reached Bloch. ‘The officer in charge took my passport, glanced at it and looked up smiling. “You were Hitler’s physician, weren’t you?” he asked. This was correct. It would also have been correct for him to add that I am a Jew.’

This is an unlikely incident. Hitler had not seen his former doctor since Christmas 1907; even in Linz, Bloch was no more than a local hero, best known for being what the town archivist, when I met him, called a ‘poor person’s doctor’, a compassionate friend to the hard up. Beyond Linz, how many people could have heard of him? The officers aboard a British trawler heaving up and down in mid-Atlantic, three days’ sail from the coast of Portugal? Perhaps the Collier’s rewrite man is to blame-or perhaps not: Walter Langer, in the OSS sourcebook, often expresses scepticism about Bloch’s reliability as a witness. He notes at one point: ‘Dr Bloch’s impressions of the family’s life-“quiet, the only bone of contention being Adolf, who refused to become an official and wanted to become an artist; his mother backing him against his father”-seem to be based on his reading of [Konrad] Heiden’s biography [1936] rather than on actual knowledge’. Elsewhere, as Bloch talks about Hitler’s time in Vienna, Langer notes that his memories are here ‘obviously very much mixed up with his reading’. Yet, for all his scepticism, Langer quotes extensively from Collier’s and was intrigued enough by Bloch to visit him a second time ‘to get more facts from him which seem of importance’. These included information on Hitler’s sisters, on his performance at school and on whether he had had ‘some trouble’ as a teenager, an incident that ‘was hushed up’ involving young girls or boys. Bloch had heard about the incident, confirmed that it involved girls, but suggested that it was ‘nothing too serious’. He also confirmed that Hitler had ‘no physical deformity, and definitely no tuberculosis, though tuberculosis was hereditary in the family from the father’s side’.

How reliable was Dr Bloch? Perhaps reliable in one important way: he does not seem to have been a revisionist witness, adjusting his experience of Hitler and his family to suit Hitler’s later beliefs and behaviour and his then current position as the civilized world’s greatest enemy. Largely, he spoke as he had found. He never once condemned his former patient: if anything, he exhibited an understandable touch of wonder at what the mature Hitler had achieved, the improbability of it all. Nor did he ever disparage Klara Hitler, whom he consistently portrayed as a gentle, modest woman, attentive to her children and religiously devout: ‘Outwardly, his love for his mother was his most striking feature,’ he told Collier’s. ‘While he was not a “mother’s boy” in the usual sense, I have never witnessed a closer attachment. Some insist that this love verged on the pathological. As a former intimate of the family, I do not believe this is true.’ To the OSS, he described the ‘reciprocal adoration’ of mother and son as most ‘unusual’.

After the first OSS interview, according to the psychotherapist Gertrude Kurth, Bloch followed her and Langer down five flights of stairs to stress once again, and by now in the street, what ‘a nice pleasant youth’ Hitler had been. More than fifty years later, when Kurth was interviewed by Ron Rosenbaum for his book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil, she could not forgive Bloch for the awful innocence of his remark. ‘Outside in the street,’ she said, ‘Langer and I laughed and laughed at that-bitter laughter.’

Bloch died in 1945. According to his grandson, George Kren, he was to the end of his life ignorant of the full horror of what had taken place in central and eastern Europe between 1939 and 1945. That may be true. Less easy to explain, however, is his reluctance to condemn the man who had forced his family’s displacement and that of many other thousands of Jewish families-all this he had experienced and witnessed for himself. And yet, as he told Collier’s, ‘Even today I cannot help thinking of him in terms of his grief and not in terms of what he has done to the world.’

We will come later to the details of what Hitler did for Dr Bloch. The first question is: what did Dr Bloch do for Hitler? What effect did Bloch’s treatment of Klara Hitler, as she succumbed to breast cancer, have on her son?

Klara Hitler had been a widow for four years when she visited Bloch at his surgery in January 1907. Her husband, Alois, had been twenty-three years older, her second cousin, and married twice before (both wives died). Her first three children had died in infancy. Another son, Edmund, Adolf’s younger brother, died of measles at the age of six. As a child, Adolf was weak and sickly; his mother feared that he would not live to maturity, and, after Edmund’s death, she became extraordinarily devoted to her only living son, the soft, maternal buffer into which he was propelled by the rage and aggression of his father. Perhaps Adolf was strengthened by her attachment. After all, as Freud said, ‘A man who’s been the indisputable favourite of his mother goes through life with the feeling of a conqueror’.

During his examination, Bloch found a tumour the size of a hen’s egg in Klara’s right breast. ‘I thought immediately of cancer,’ he told Collier’s. He did not, however, tell Klara of his immediate fears; instead he called her ‘children’-presumably Adolf, who had recently returned from Vienna, his sister, Paula and their elder half-sister, Angela-to his consultation room, where he ‘stated the case frankly’. Their mother, he told them, was very sick. ‘Without surgery, there was absolutely no hope of recovery. Even with surgery there was but the slightest chance that she would live. In family council they must decide what was to be done.’ Bloch described how Hitler reacted to what he heard. ‘His long, sallow face was contorted. Tears flowed from his eyes. Did his mother, he asked, have no chance? Only then did I realize the magnitude of the attachment that existed between mother and son.’

Klara Hitler’s mastectomy was performed four days later by Dr Karl Urban, the chief of the surgical staff at the Hospital of the Sisters of Mercy in Linz, who was recognized as one of the most experienced surgeons in Upper Austria. After examining Klara, he agreed that she required immediate surgery if her life was to be prolonged. (The Nazis later persecuted Urban: together with his son, a brain surgeon, he was forbidden from practising medicine.)

Bloch was present during surgery at the family’s request. Klara was discharged from hospital on February 5, 1907 and enjoyed a brief recovery; Bloch would meet her out walking by the river or see her shopping at the market. But by midsummer the cancer had metastasized; she was once more in severe pain and there was little he could do for her, beyond reducing her pain with regular morphine injections.

‘I shall never forget Klara during those days,’ Bloch told Collier’s. ‘She was forty-eight at the time; tall, slender and rather handsome, yet wasted by disease. She was soft-spoken, patient; more concerned about what would happen to her family than she was about her approaching death. She made no secret of these worries, or about the fact that most of her thoughts were for her son. “Adolf is still so young,” she said repeatedly [he was eighteen]. On the day of December 20, I made two calls. The end was approaching…so the word that Angela Hitler brought me the following morning came as no surprise. Her mother had died quietly in the night. The children had decided not to disturb me, knowing that their mother was beyond all medical aid. But, she asked, could I come now? Someone in an official position would have to sign the death certificate… Adolf, his face showing the weariness of a sleepless night, sat beside his mother. In order to preserve a last impression, he had sketched her as she lay on her deathbed… I sat with the family for a while, trying to ease their grief. I explained that in this case death had been a saviour. They understood. In the practice of my profession it is natural that I should have witnessed many scenes such as this one, yet none of them left me with quite the same impression. In all my career I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler.’

The most complex explanation of the effect of Bloch on Hitler during this time comes from Professor Rudolph Binion in his book Hitler against the Germans. Binion is half psychologist and half historian-a psycho-historian-and he identifies Bloch as the latent trigger for Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Bloch, after all, replaced Hitler’s dead father, Alois, in Klara’s bedroom; Bloch saw his mother naked; Bloch, in Binion’s view, increased her suffering through the excessive application of iodoform, a strong-smelling antiseptic which is toxic when absorbed into the bloodstream in high doses.

Bloch makes no mention of iodoform in his interviews. Binion discovered it in Bloch’s patient records, which he found in a National Socialist party archive-Bloch’s papers had been seized by the Gestapo before he left Linz. The records for 1907 showed Binion that Bloch had used iodoform gauze to cover the open wound left by her mastectomy. The treatment, Binion argued, was poisonous, with side effects which would have included insomnia, muscle spasticity, extreme thirst, severe migraines, fever and visual disturbance-all consistent with Klara’s symptoms as described by Bloch, by Hitler, and by Hitler’s closest friend from adolescence August Kubizek.

Ergo, according to Binion, a dedicated Freudian, Hitler nurtured an unconscious hatred of Bloch. He unconsciously blamed the suffering of his mother on the doctor’s incompetence. To Hitler, he became not just a Jewish poisoner, he was poison itself. Hitler would speak later of the need to remove the ‘Jewish poison from the breast’ of the German nation. Professor Binion is unequivocal: Hitler relocated his mother in Germany.

Throughout his life, Bloch, Freud’s fellow countryman, took a simpler view. He told Collier’s of how, a few days after Klara’s funeral, Hitler and his two sisters had visited him at home on the Landstrasse. ‘They wished to thank me for the help I had given them. There was Paula, fair and stocky; Angela, slender, pretty but rather anemic; and Adolf. The girls spoke what was in their hearts while Adolf remained silent… Adolf wore a dark suit and a loosely knotted cravat. Then, as now, a shock of hair tumbled over his forehead. His eyes were on the floor while his sisters were talking. Then came his turn. He stepped forward and took my hand. Looking into my eyes, he said: “I shall be grateful to you forever.” That was all. Then he bowed.’ Later, Bloch claimed that Hitler sent him several postcards and sketches from Vienna, including a postcard on which Hitler had painted a hooded Capuchin monk raising a glass of champagne. The picture was captioned: prosit neujahr (‘A toast to the New Year’). On the reverse, he had written: ‘The Hitler family sends you the best wishes for a Happy New Year. In everlasting thankfulness, Adolf Hitler.’ When I spoke to Bloch’s grandchildren, George and Joanne, they said that their grandfather had indeed kept these souvenirs, but that they had been taken by the Gestapo when they confiscated his medical records.

Gratitude: that was what Bloch felt certain Hitler had felt. Otherwise, why the postcards? Otherwise, why in 1940 would Bloch and his wife have been granted passports and permitted to emigrate unhindered to America?

Klara Hitler is buried in a small churchyard in the market town of Leonding, which was once a small, isolated agricultural village but today is part of the south-western suburbs of Linz, which lies surrounded by wooded hills in the Danube valley. The Hitlers themselves had once lived in Leonding, in a cottage that backed on to the cemetery. It was in Leonding that the family patriarch, Alois Hitler, a retired minor customs official in the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, died suddenly from pulmonary bleeding as he sat drinking in a tavern on January 3, 1903. The Hitler family plot lies under a big tree by the graveyard wall. On the morning I went there I saw that flowers had been laid at the foot of the headstone-white lilies and red roses. There was no sign of greater pilgrimage; in the 1930s Nazi flags had been laid over the grave, and visits became popular again, I was told, just before the reunification of Germany. But neither was there any sign of desecration. On the headstone, the photographs of Klara and her husband, Alois, were undamaged. A brief inscription recorded the dates of their deaths.

I’d gone to Linz to find out more about Bloch. My hotel, on the square in the old quarter of the city, was only a short walk away from his old house at 12 Landstrasse. From the window of my room, I could see the Rathaus, the town hall, from where on March 12, 1938 Hitler had addressed an estimated 60,000 people on his homecoming to Linz. Later that night, encouraged by the mood of celebration in the town, he declared the Anschluss of Austria, which he saw as predetermined, the fulfilment of his long-standing ambition to unite the German Volk. On April 10, the Anschluss was ratified in a mass vote.

Hitler had great plans for Linz. During the war, he commissioned the architect Hermann Giesler to lead its redesign and rebuilding: new bridges, avenues and public squares, a new city hall, sports stadium, theatre and opera house, its own monument to Bismarck and, most spectacularly of all, a 160-metre high Gothic ‘Tower on the Danube’, in which the Führer’s parents were to be reburied in a vaulted crypt. There was also to be a new art gallery in which to display the great works that had been looted from public and private collections during the Nazi conquest of Europe.

During his final weeks in the Reichskanzlei, when the war was lost and the Soviets were rampaging towards Berlin, the sleepless Hitler would return repeatedly to the underground room where Giesler’s model of the new Linz was still taking shape; pictures of Hitler at this time-some, uncharacteristically, of him wearing spectacles-show the fierce concentration with which he studied Giesler’s plans and models, though he must have known long before that Linz would never be rebuilt, that his home town would remain forever provincial.

Today the Nibelungen Bridge across the Danube, linking the old main square of Linz with the northern suburb of Urfahr and completed before Germany’s reversals on the Eastern Front, remains the chief monument to Hitler’s mission to rebuild Linz. It replaced the old iron bridge across which Dr Bloch used to travel in his carriage on his daily visits to the dying Klara Hitler at the family’s three-room apartment at 9 Bluetenstrasse. Bloch later spoke of how the apartment afforded fine views of the surrounding hills; but these views have since been altered by a sprawl of office blocks, shopping malls and high-rise concrete car parks. This was the result of the Allied bombing and postwar redevelopment of Linz, a city which, until the signing of the State Treaty in 1955 gave independence to the newly neutral Austrian state, was occupied north of the river by the Soviets and by the Americans in the south.

A hundred years ago, when Bloch began to practise there, the dominant political culture of Linz was a kind of provincial patriotism: conservative, folkish, agrarian, clerical, anti-Slavic and Judaeophobic. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Dual Monarchy, but, close to the Bavarian border, it leaned away from the cosmopolitanism of Vienna and towards Germany. Many Upper Austrians felt uneasy about the absorption of their German identity in the polyglot amorphousness of Dual Monarchy; they increasingly looked west to the new unified German state for leadership and security. Newspapers such as the Linzer Fliegenden and the Linzer Post supported the pan-Germans and published caricatures of the Yiddish-speaking ‘Eastern’ Jews-the so-called kaftan Jews-who were moving west to escape Tsarist pogroms and the insularity of shtetl life. The city council was intermittently under the control of the pan-Germans, as were many of the local guilds, student groups and institutions of wider civil society. In a population of 60,000, only one per cent were Jews.

After the Anschluss, the Nazi elite was determined to modernize and industrialize Linz-the industrial base of the old Dual Monarchy had been in Czech Bohemia. In 1938, work began on a huge iron, steel and coking works-the ‘Hermann Goering Works’-which once completed became an important engine of the war effort. Within six months of the Anschluss, unemployment in Linz had been eliminated. In the years that followed, and partly by exploiting the resource of slave labour at the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp, Linz became one of the leading industrial centres of Europe. Today heavy industry is still responsible for much of its affluence-and for thickening its skies with smoke. Its economic transformation remains one of the great successes of National Socialism, as the right-wing Austrian populist Jorg Haider likes to remind his supporters, omitting to mention that a large part of this prosperity has its foundations in slave labour. The present popularity of Haider’s Freedom Party is often cited as an example of how Austria, unlike Germany, has failed to engage properly with its wartime history. Every autumn in Linz, for example, war veterans still meet to celebrate what some Austrians consider to be their national sacrifice. It was during one such meeting of veterans-this time in Klagenfurt, in the southern province of Corinthia-that Haider made a notorious speech urging his audience not to feel ashamed of themselves or of their country. They had, he said, only fulfilled their patriotic duty.

Talking to people in Linz, it seemed to me that Austria remained a humiliated and troubled state. Austrian schoolchildren have been taught to believe that their country was the first victim of Nazism. Perhaps, given Austria’s immediate postwar history, it is a necessary untruth. As one young academic told me: ‘It’s very hard for people of my generation to tell our parents that they were wrong, particularly after the way so many of them suffered in the war in the East and under the Soviet occupation. [The 45th Linz Infantry Division sustained desperate losses on the Eastern Front.] It’s hard to tell old people that their lives were a mistake.’

In this city, Bloch was nowhere. He’d slipped away when men were putting the finishing touches to the Hermann Goering Works. There was only his signature on Klara Hitler’s death certificate, and the picture in the city archive; Hitler in the Landstrasse, looking-maybe-towards the dear doctor’s house.

But Bloch had a child, Trude, and she had a husband, Frank Kren, and they had children, George and Joanne. Before I went to Linz, I had traced Bloch’s two grandchildren. George Kren was a historian, retired from Kansas State University and living in a small town outside Kansas; Joanne, now Joanne Harrison, was a retired nurse who lived in Ewing, New Jersey. George and I had talked on the phone and exchanged emails. He said he was working hard to complete what would be his final book, a Holocaust study, and that he was translating a short memoir that had been left by his grandfather. I told him how interested I would be to read that memoir. He said nothing. I sensed a reticence about his grandfather, and in retrospect more than that: what now seems to me a reluctance to corroborate Bloch’s story and even a suspicion of his motives for telling it. ‘It was not so hard to get out of Linz for Jews,’ George said once. ‘Certainly not when I left for England in 1938.’ Another time, he described his grandfather as ‘a bit of a showman. He was a real character all right.’

George and Joanne had left Austria on the Kindertransport, on one of the trains that saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children. They travelled at night through Switzerland and France and then sailed across the Channel to Harwich, where they arrived in April, 1939. They stayed at first with a family in the East End of London and then moved south to Brighton, where they were separated from each other. In 1940, they were reunited with their parents in New York, shortly before their grandparents came to stay.

‘How did you find living in England?’ I asked George.

‘I’ll tell you about it when we meet.’

Kren had returned several times as an adult to Linz. He liked the tranquillity of the place, and recommended a restaurant that I should visit-high up on the Postlingberg heights, where there is also a baroque pilgrims’ church, built in the late 1730s. You reach the summit of the Postlingberg on what is one of the world’s steepest railways, completed in 1898. The air is thin and bracing up there. As dusk settles you watch the burnished blue of the distant Alps disappearing slowly into the surrounding darkness and follow the lamp-lit river below on its journey through the Danube valley.

In Collier’s and with the OSS, Dr Bloch never talked about what Linz was like before the Anschluss-perhaps because he wasn’t asked. The impression he gave of his life there was one of happy fulfilment. All that changed when, in the spring and summer of 1938, official anti-Semitism began to affect his friends and patients. Jews were, progressively, banned from hotels, restaurants, parks and certain clubs and associations; Jewish lawyers and doctors were forbidden to practise; Jewish shops, homes and offices were marked with what Bloch called ‘the yellow-paper banners now visible throughout Germany-jude’.

On November 10, 1938-‘Kristallnacht’-a ruling was issued that those Jews who had not yet emigrated, or declared (like Bloch’s daughter and her husband) their intention to do so, were to leave Linz within sixty-two hours. But Bloch, who was reluctant to leave, discovered that an ‘exception’ was to be made in his case. The Gestapo had visited previously to ask him to remove the yellow signs from his home and office-‘the first suggestion that I was to receive special favours’. Then his landlord ‘went to Gestapo headquarters to ask if I were to be allowed to remain in my apartment. “We wouldn’t dare touch that matter,” he was told. “It will be handled by Berlin.”’ Bloch told Collier’s that he took that as a sign that Hitler had remembered. He had remembered his promise of gratitude to the Noble Jew.

During one of my phone conversations with George, I mentioned this episode. His tone hardened. ‘My grandfather documented all that fairly accurately,’ he said, briefly.

‘Can you recall yourself what it was like to live in Linz as a child?’

‘When you think of Linz at that time,’ he said, ‘you must remember that not just Hitler, but also Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangel came from the town. That might give you some idea of its atmosphere.’

I was never to meet George Kren. Shortly before I was due to set off from England for Kansas to see him, I’d emailed him. The message bounced back. Perhaps he’d changed his address? I called Kansas University where I knew he still kept an office. A secretary said that ‘Professor Kren had sadly passed away’. It turned out that he had been suffering from emphysema, something which he had never mentioned to me. He died without completing his final book, which I was told his wife was preparing for publication together with a collection of his academic essays. There was no mention of Bloch’s memoir. When I called his wife at home in Kansas, she didn’t want to talk about Bloch at all. ‘That was all before my time,’ she said. ‘There’s not a lot I can say about that anyway. You should speak to his sister.’

I called Joanne. ‘My brother really hated our grandfather,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why. To me, Dr Bloch was the nearest thing I ever met to a saint. But my brother, well, sometimes I wonder if in some strange way he blamed our grandfather for the Holocaust. He was obsessed with the Holocaust, he couldn’t let it go.’

‘Why was he obsessed?’

‘He was a very bitter man. Life soured him. He hated his experiences in England-but I had a good time-and blamed that, I think, for his later unhappiness in America. He always felt out of place in the States, especially during his school years. He was very restless, very angry. He looked at the dark side of life all the time. He kept on looking into the darkness until he could no longer look away.’

‘What about his Jewishness-wasn’t that a source of consolation?’

‘No. I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘He was nothing. He believed in nothing. His funeral was held in a nondescript room with a few friends. He wasn’t a believer.’

‘What about you?’ I said. ‘Are you a believer?’

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I believe.’

Joanne said we could meet if I came to America, and the day after I got to New York I called her at her home in Ewing. She had disappointing news. ‘I’m afraid I’m gonna have to cancel out on that,’ she said. I explained that I had come all the way from London to meet her. ‘No, I don’t want to speak about any of that.’

I couldn’t understand. Before on the phone she had been animated and candid about her memories of her grandfather and brother. The next day, I tried again; her refusal was adamant again. I decided to hire a car and drive out to Ewing the next day and do the simple, reportorial thing: knock on her door. Her husband opened it and invited me inside. Then Joanne came in from the kitchen, a small, slim woman with wavy grey hair and the unmistakable eyes of her grandfather. We had tea. It was a long time before I left.

Joanne Harrison was proud of her grandfather: she had never doubted the truth of his story. She was familiar with Binion’s thesis about Hitler’s unconscious hatred of Dr Bloch; her mother, she said, had considered legal action against ‘that man’ (Binion) until she realized that you could not libel the dead. (I later discovered that Trude Kren had written a letter to Der Spiegel in July 1978 which praised Bloch’s compassion and loyalty to the Hitler family and mentioned Adolf’s postcards from Vienna.) But something else also became clear: Joanne was no longer a Jew. There was a small ornamental cross on her mantelpiece. Her piety (‘Oh yes, I believe’) was Christian. She and her husband were evangelicals. How had this happened? Because, she said, she had never felt Jewish: ‘Even at home in Linz, we used to celebrate Christmas. My mother was a disciple of Rudolf Steiner. She discovered his teachings when she was sixteen.’ Then, during her brief stay as a child refugee in England, she had been told that she must attend church every Sunday, with the words ‘because this is what we do in this country. You’re not in Austria now.’ Her mother, too, had converted. After her husband, the doctor Frank Kren, died, she had gone to live in an evangelical Christian community in upstate New York. Joanne remembered a conversation between her mother and her grandmother, Emilie Bloch, just before Emile died. ‘She turned to my mother and said now we shall see who’s right: you or me. By which I think she meant that she would at last be able to discover whether Christ was the Messiah, as my mother believed, or not.’

Joanne hinted that her own absolute faith was the source of much of the conflict between her and her brother, who, as she repeatedly stressed, ‘believed in nothing’. She hadn’t attended his funeral. ‘His high intelligence isolated him from other people,’ Joanne said. ‘He was very hostile to our parents, hostile to Dr Bloch. I think he thought Bloch was too close to our mother, or something like that. Maybe he thought there was something sexual between them. Who knows what it was…’

She started again. ‘It was the Holocaust, I think. He couldn’t put it away. Deep down, I know he was really a good person-’

Joanne knew nothing of a memoir or a diary kept by Dr Bloch. Nor could she understand why, if her brother owned such a document, he would have waited for more than forty-five years before beginning to translate it. ‘He never mentioned a memoir to me,’ she said. ‘And I wasn’t aware that my grandfather was ever working on anything like that, not when we all lived together in the Bronx.’ Might it be that there was something in the memoir-more generosity towards young Hitler, perhaps-that George Kren didn’t want to confront? The thought hadn’t occurred to her.

Joanne’s husband, John Harrison, brought out the intricate family tree which he’d been working on for many years. The one important date missing from his research was that of Dr Bloch’s death; all they knew was that he had died from cancer in 1945 and was buried ‘somewhere on Long Island’.

So much about Eduard Bloch-as with his most famous patient-resists explanation. We can now know so very little of him; in the memory of his granddaughter, work was what had mattered most-‘He loved being a doctor, loved his work’-and that had vanished once he left Linz, was vanishing even when he still lived there. After the Anschluss, once the persecution of the Jews began, Bloch was permitted to treat only Jewish patients; as their numbers reduced, so his routine of more than thirty-seven years was destroyed. He was being prevented from doing what he knew best-from working. He seems to have found little or no consolation in religious belief. His fear grew. Joanne recalled how one day late in 1938 her father, Frank Kren, was arrested and imprisoned. He was, she said, guilty of no crime other than his Jewishness. In desperation, Bloch told his daughter, Trude, to show the local Gestapo the postcards that Hitler had sent from Vienna thirty or so years before. The move worked. ‘My father was soon released,’ she told me. ‘After that, we had no more trouble.’

In the Collier’s interview, Bloch described how a Gestapo agent later visited his wife at home, when he was out, and confiscated the postcards, his ‘souvenirs of the Führer’. The next day, Bloch went to the Gesellenhausstrasse hotel, a Gestapo base, and requested their return. An officer asked him whether he were under suspicion for any anti-Nazi activities. ‘I replied that I was not; that I was a professional man with no political connections. As an afterthought he asked if I was a non-Aryan. I answered without compromise: “I am 100 per cent Jew.” The change that came over him was instantaneous. The cards, he said, would be retained for safekeeping.’ Bloch never saw them again.

Still, he did escape. This is his story, as he told it and as his granddaughter believes it. At some point after the Anschluss, Bloch attempted to find out if, unlike other Jews in the town, he and his family would be able to take their savings with them if they got out. ‘Getting any local ruling on such a matter was out of the question. I knew that I couldn’t see Adolf Hitler. Yet I felt that if I could get a message to him he would perhaps give us some help.’ So Bloch sent his daughter to find Hitler’s now widowed half-sister Angela, who was living in Vienna. Because Angela was out, Trude left her father’s written request for help with one of her neighbours; later that evening, the neighbour contacted Trude to say that Angela had received her message, that she ‘sent her greetings and would see what she could do’.

By good fortune, Bloch told Collier’s, ‘Hitler was in Vienna that night for one of his frequent but unheralded trips to the opera.’ He was ‘sure’ that Angela had met up with her half-brother and passed him the message. Bloch, it seems, never doubted Hitler’s good intentions towards him. Soon after, he sold his property, and eventually left for America with ‘sixteen marks’ and a letter of recommendation from what he called the ‘Nazi organization of physicians’. The letter said that because of his ‘character, medical knowledge and readiness to help the sick’ he had won ‘the appreciation of his fellow men’. His final act in Lisbon, just before he left Europe forever, was to post a letter to the Führer which he had written in Linz. Collier’s published it a few months later-perhaps Bloch retained a copy, or could reproduce it from memory; it seems an elaborate thing to have invented.

Your Excellency:

Before passing the border I want to express my thanks for the protection which I have received. In material poverty I am now leaving the town where I have lived for forty-one years; but I leave conscious of having lived in the most exact fulfilment of my duty. At sixty-nine I will start my life anew in a strange country where my daughter is working hard to support her family.

Yours faithfully, Eduard Bloch

Before I drove back to New York, Joanne Harrison showed me some photographs of Dr Bloch-of him on his wedding day in 1903, white gloves, white tie, dark morning suit; of him alone in his surgery on the Landstrasse, hunched in white-coated abstraction. She also showed me a facsimile copy of his application for American citizenship. His eyes, according to the form, were blue, his ‘race’ was ‘German’, his complexion was light, he weighed 165 pounds and he was five feet six inches tall. As ever, in the accompanying passport-sized photograph, he was wearing a stiff collar and thickly knotted tie, his wavy grey hair brushed back from the accordion creases of his forehead. But this time his expression was more melancholy-a certain downturn of the mouth and a sad shine in his eyes. The best was behind him then.

I asked Joan a last question, as difficult to ask as, I thought, to answer. How did it feel to have a Jewish grandfather who owed his life to the friendship, or gratitude, or mercy, of Adolf Hitler? In a voice just above a whisper, she said: ‘Hitler kept his promise to us, didn’t he?’

She paused, perhaps aware that she was echoing the words of Dr Bloch himself. ‘Which means…’

‘Which means, what?’ I said.

‘That there must be some good in everybody, in Hitler, in those people who flew the planes into the World Trade towers. You have to believe in the possibility of goodness, don’t you? Who knows what Hitler went through as a child to make him the person he became.’

Ron Rosenbaum, while researching his book Explaining Hitler, met and interviewed the world’s leading authorities on Nazism, only to conclude after more than 400 pages that in fact there was nothing to conclude: Hitler remained resolutely inexplicable, unknowable, what Joachim Fest had previously called an ‘unperson’. The mystery of Adolf Hitler, then, is that there is no real mystery: he was no more than the sum of his atrocious actions. He was what he said and did what he thought. To search for what is hidden in his life-his sexuality, his secret hurts and slights-is to ignore what was manifest about him. The error of the pioneering OSS profile, of Ron Rosenbaum’s book and so many others like it, is to assume, as Joanne Harrison did, that the ‘real’ truth about Hitler must lie buried somewhere, probably deep in childhood trauma. If it is, we shall never know.

On my final day in New York, I took the subway up through Harlem and deep into the Bronx, where I found the apartment building on Creston Avenue where Walter Langer had visited Bloch: red brick, dishevelled, Z-shaped fire escape, air-conditioning units scarring the outside of the building. Recent arrivals from Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean had made this once-Jewish neighbourhood their own.

How did Bloch feel as he reflected on his life and tried to find meaning there? What did he know of the fate of the Jews left behind in Europe, including members of the extended Kren family who, his granddaughter thought, had gone to the camps some time in the 1940s? Today Bloch lives on in the margins and footnotes of the Hitler industry-a victim of the cruelty of posterity, and the last of his own particular line of Jews.

France: into the void

June 5 2002 / New Statesman

Baise-moi is a road movie with a twisted difference. Two young women, one of whom has been raped, embark on a journey through France, sustained by murderous fantasies of revenge. Their aim is clear: to have sex with and then kill as many men as possible, which they do, again and again, in unrelenting and lurid detail. That’s about it. These women have the self-satisfied ferocity of a black widow spider: they simultaneously satisfy their sexual and murderous appetites in scenes of appalling degradation. This, I suppose, is meant to be a kind of freedom.

Baise-moi—directed by two women, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi—has just opened in Britain and is perhaps the most extreme and disturbed film ever to have been passed by the censors. Like many modern French films, with artistic aspirations or otherwise, it collapses the boundary between pornography and mainstream cinema at a time when there is no longer anything new or challenging to be said about pornography: the sex in the film is actual rather than simulated, and the violence has all the suffocating appeal of a snuff movie. Baise-moi labours to shock. Its website has a section entitled “The controversy” and statements of denunciation are worn like badges of honour on the posters and advertisements. Yet what is most shocking about Baise-moi is not, in the end, the violence, but what it signifies about the cultural emptiness—what Tom Paulin has called the “moral void”—of France in the age of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The film has been acclaimed as a work of radical feminism—which may say more about the confusion and relativism of modern feminism than anything else. Rachel Holmes, the academic and writer, said on Newsnight Review that she enjoyed it because it refused to satisfy the male gaze. “These women kill like men. There is nothing here that we haven’t already seen in a Tarantino or Scorsese. What there is in this film is women killing men, but talking about it like women. After the first shoot-‘em-up scene, when they have committed this murder, doing it in a cool, if you like, masculine way, they have a conversation about it…I went to see the film in a foul mood and came out finding it utterly cathartic. It’s one of the most feminist movies I have seen in a long time.”

Which means, I presume, that the film satisfied that one particular female’s gaze. Yet, more seriously, what does it mean to be feminist, you wonder, when a work of pornography in which the human animal is reduced to being no more than a monolith of base motive, in which women giggle while men writhe in pain in an orgy of blood and semen, is described as feminist? Is this what more than three decades of gender wars have been reduced to: cheap sloganeering about the male and female gazes?

Another French film on current release is The Pornographer, directed by Bertrand Bonello. It is a baffling, soft-edged elegy to the sexual libertinism of the late 1960s, and tells the story of an aged director of skin flicks who, late in life, decides to make one last film. The Pornographer has been passed by the censors, although a 12-second segment, in which a man ejaculates into a woman’s face, will not be shown at British cinemas—in this country, we have never agitated to have our hard-core sex freely available at mainstream cinemas, preferring the furtive, subterranean experience of purchasing a video from an out-of-town dealer, or the illicit thrill of a Soho basement.

The Pornographer—like Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), with its excited portrayal of scenes of actual penetration—is propelled bywhatit believes to be a radical agenda: it wants to destroy the last taboo of mainstream cinema, which is to show the penis erect and engaged in real sex acts, and so verisimilitude is prized above all else. But there is nothing radical or subversive about sex, even when it comes wrapped in the aesthetic designs of the new French cinema. In the age of the internet, lads’ magazines and the video, when men of all ages are free to hold the remote control in one hand and their penis in the other as they surf the late-night cable channels, we have become inured to the tyranny of the sexual image, to the hard concentration on, and the endless cheap exploitation of, the human body, with its grunts and groans, its juices and ecstatic releases.

There is nothing transcendent or rapturous about the couplings portrayed in Romance, Baise-moi or The Pornographer. In the new French cinema, sex is always sordid. It is always separated from love and companionship. It is, as Shakespeare wrote, “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”. Perhaps that is the purpose of these films, in which images of sex and death are so tightly inter woven: to show us as we really are, with all facades and artifice removed, to remind us that we are really nothing but flesh and blood. Their vision is resolutely anti-humanist, in line with much current thinking in philosophy and science which seeks to show that all schemes to remake the world—socialism, environmentalism, liberalism—are doomed to fail; that history has no direction or meaning; that progress is a myth; that the human animal is hard-wired to find meaning in a universe where there is none; that life on earth is a fluke and amounts to little more than an unceasing struggle for survival; that there is, needless to say, no God.

Watching the dead-eyed actors moving in time to the commands of the directors—actors tricked into believing that their work is engaged and artistic—you understand that what you are seeing in these films is a reflection of a wider nihilism in French society. The French may be celebrated for their hauteur and difference, for their robust struggle against the homogenising forces of les Anglo-Saxons; but they are also a nation in thrall to cheap effects—pornography, populism, political posturing. With the defeat of Lionel Jospin by Le Pen and the increasing boredom and atomisation of the electorate, the French exception is beginning to resemble nothing so much as a peculiar kind of defeat, one located in an isolated and reactionary anti-Americanism. Such a wilful sense of difference and the American Other has had disastrous manifestations in foreign policy, illustrated most damagingly by the cultivation of Robert Mugabe, the interventions in Rwanda that contributed in no small part to the genocide of 1994, and the stubborn insistence on carrying out nuclear tests in what is left of the old francophone Pacific island colonies. All this has alienated the French young from their ruling elite, an elite now dependent on the aged and discredited Jacques Chirac to defeat the aged and foolish Le Pen. Whatever happened to modernity and renewal? Perhaps what France required long ago was its own version of Margaret Thatcher, after all.

I have just read XCiTes (Flamingo, [pounds sterling]7.99), a fascinating collection of essays, interviews and new fiction edited by Georgia de Chamberet. The book offers an insight into a France that is urban, polyglot, multiracial and multicultural. But there is nothing inspiring about the stories included here, for all their ambition and linguistic invention. They are mostly set in nightclubs and seedy bars and are, on the whole, about different forms of self-abuse. Their titles—“Fuck Me” (the inspiration for Baise-moi), “Transient Bliss”, “Trashed”, “The Gallery of the Insane”, “Into the Void”, “Lost in Music”—should in themselves suggest that we are once more entering the moral universe of the new French cinema: emotionally illiterate, blurry, narcotised, corrupted. The characters portrayed in these stories are recognisable archetypes, too bored to vote or to care about mainstream politics, intent merely on seeking escape from the stale burden of consciousness.

The great chronicler of the moral and cultural emptiness of modern France is Michel Houellebecq, perhaps the most talented and contrary writer in Europe today. Many contemporary French writers play with the idea of nihilism; Houellebecq means it, both in his life and work. In person, Houellebecq, who is in his mid-forties, is a dissolute presence, sickened by a life dedicated to cigarettes, alcohol and trips to bizarre, anarchic sex camps in the Paris suburbs, which he satirises ruthlessly in his marvellous novel Les particules elementaires (published in Britain two years ago as Atomised).

Gerry Feehily, an Irish literary critic based in Paris, met Houellebecq at a party last year. “He was surrounded by all these glamorous publishing women and journalists, but he looked utterly wasted and dishevelled,” he told me. “When I spoke to him, he seemed to be shaking; there was this distant, faraway look in his eyes as if he wasn’t quite there. But at the same time you could see that he was utterly contemptuous of everything and everyone around him. Sometimes you have the feeling that he really hates France and everything about it.”

Atomised tells the story of two brothers, Michel and Bruno, who are born to the same progressive mother, a 1 968er in outlook and lifestyle. The brothers are later separated by the fragmentation of their family life; bullied and humiliated at school, they endure a miserable adolescence. They both enter early adulthood as disturbed, isolated figures. “I’d like to believe that the self illusion,” Bruno tells Michel, “but if it is, it’s a pretty painful one.” So begins the brothers’ journey to find meaning in a world of disappointed aspiration, a journey that takes Bruno into compulsive promiscuity and the sexual demi-monde of Paris, and Michel into molecular biology and experiments into the very foundation of what it is to be human.

Houellebecq has thought hard about what it means to live in a post-Christian universe. He believes we are living at the end of an age of reason. What lies ahead is a fall into chaos and ennui, as represented by the rise of Islamo-fascism in the east and decadent consumerism in the west. Christian doctrine, he writes, accorded unconditional importance to every human life from conception to death. But today the “agnosticism at the heart of the French republic” has facilitated the “slightly sinister triumph of the determinist world-view”, of a world without the possibility of transcendence. But still the value of human life continues to preoccupy the liberal conscience. Which in the “last years of western civilisation contributed to a general mood of depression bordering on masochism”.

Houellebecq is a former communist and was once a leading contributor to the progressive literary journal Perpendiculaire, from the board of which he was eventually banished after he refused to be held accountable for the racism of his character Bruno. In recent years—even before Atomised, which as the Economist wrote, was “not so much published as detonated”—he began, like Celine before him, to occupy a position of perpetual opposition, to both left and right, similar to the editorial line of the now defunct LM magazine in this country.

More specifically, he has emerged as a combative critic of the revolutionary excesses of the late 1960s, a period which, he believes, laid the foundation for modern lassitude and despair. In Atomised, Bruno and Michel are forced to evaluate the codes by which their parents’ generation lived—the licentiousness, the irresponsibility, the refusal to conform. Houellebecq—like many younger French novelists, for whom he is the commanding presence, an influence and inspiration—works out of a sense of profound crisis: did we as a nation take a wrong turn? What if our pursuit of sexual satisfaction and freedom was really a kind of imprisonment? Have the costs of living through the revolutionary period of the 1960s been too great to wider society?

With the publication last year of his most recent novel, Platform (out here in the autumn), Houellebecq has become a figure of even greater controversy and discord in France. Platform is a study of sex tourism in Thailand and is full of witty, unhinged attacks on liberal-left orthodoxies and on religious fundamentalism (it was published in France before 11 September). From his new home on the south-west coast of Ireland, he continues to detonate missiles of contempt against France, Islam and what he calls the “evils of globalisation”. He is an emblematically modern French figure, because he appears to believe in nothing and is opposed to everything. The only respite in his work is a kind of intense erotic abandonment, a wilful surrender to preposterous desires. His novels, though among the most accomplished to have been written in the past 20 years anywhere in the world, share a vision of France that also finds expression in the anti-humanist themes of Baise-moi and much of the new French cinema.

“The generation that has grown up since the Second World War, the generation of our parents, was the most optimistic in history,” Houellebecq told the writer Andrew Hussey, author of a fine biography of Guy Debord. “They believed in progress, the consumer society, sexual happiness and they were naive and wrong to believe in such things. This generation is different because it knows that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, that pleasure is the opposite of happiness. That, to me, is an unassailable moral position.”

So that, then, is the challenge confronting the political class in France: how to reach a generation that no longer believes in the possibility of progress or indeed of happiness? Small wonder that Le Pen’s bootboys are on the march.

Letter from Berlin: Germany's forgotten victims

March 27 2002 / The Guardian

Every year, in ever-decreasing numbers, people from the former Soviet Union, most of them elderly, make the long journey to Treptower Park in the eastern suburbs of Berlin. There stands a monument to the Soviet dead of the second world war and, in particular, to the estimated 300,000 Soviet troops killed in the battle for Berlin in the spring of 1945, at least 5,000 of whom are buried in the park. The monument is a socialist-realist heroic fantasy: an “unknown soldier”, raised on a plinth 36ft above the ground, surveys the flat, monotonous landscape before him. He supports a frightened child in one hand and brandishes a sword in the other, while at his feet is a fractured swastika. The memorial crypt inside the plinth is made from marble removed from Hitler’s Reich Chancellery.

In Treptower Park on a cold, snowy morning, I recently met an old woman who told me her brother had been killed in the final weeks of the war defending what she called the “lost city” of Königsberg, the old capital of East Prussia, which today, as Kaliningrad, is in a troubled Russian enclave on the Baltic. She had her own name for the monument in the park: “the site of the unknown rapist”, she called it, in recognition of the atrocities visited on German women during the last months of what became, as Hitler prophesied it would, a “war of total annihilation”.

Later, I bought a copy of Günter Grass’s new novel, In Retrogression, which merges fiction, memoir and reportage to tell the story of what is being called “Germany’s Titanic” - the sinking by a Soviet submarine of the cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945. There were more than 7,000 people aboard the liner - most of them German refugees escaping from the chaos on the eastern front - when it was hit by three torpedoes in the freezing waters of the Baltic, west of the port of Danzig (now Gdansk). The ship was designed to take a maximum of 2,000 passengers, and it sank rapidly. Grass imagines the final moments of those on board: their panic, their despair, the clamour and the screaming.

That Grass, an icon of the left and lifelong critic of German revisionism, should have returned at this time to such an emotive subject has inspired animated conversation in Germany. After all, it was Grass, during the reunification celebrations of 1990, who said: “Whoever thinks about Germany at this moment should not forget Auschwitz.” In Retrogression is being read not only as an elegy for the estimated 6,000 people who died that night in the icy black waters of the Baltic, but as a signifier of what Die Welt is calling the “normalisation of Germany”.

This so-called normalisation is a complex and tortuous process but, in essence, what it means is that no understanding of the Nazi period and its long, dislocating aftermath can be complete without acceptance of Germany’s own suffering. Nor, without normalisation, is it possible to contextualise nazism, to draw comparisons with, say, Soviet communism and other regimes of historic tyranny. Hitherto, certainly since the leftist rebellions of the 1960s, the emphasis has been on the crimes and unique evil of the Third Reich, on the Holocaust, on German culpability and on rituals of mourning and memory. Which means that the Germans have never allowed themselves to comprehend the full effects of the war on their collective consciousness, their own sense of loss.

There are other signs of normalisation, too, that bespeak a renewed confidence to address the past. The Social Democrat politician Alwin Ziel has suggested, for instance, giving the name “Prussia” to the new state that would emerge from the proposed merger of Berlin and Brandenburg. He is supported by the essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, among others, but has also been widely condemned, though he seeks to resurrect Prussia in name only. Elsewhere, in Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, the leading rightwing challenger to chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has been vilified by younger Germans for demanding an apology from the Czech Republic for the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland, a wound that still festers.

“Normalisation means opening up the whole of the history of that period, and that includes what happened in the old GDR, when Germans killed Germans, what happened in Dresden, East Prussia and so on,” says Walter Rothschild, a British-born rabbi who is now a leading member of the Jewish community in Berlin. “The Jews have long occupied the role of victim; but it’s time, I think, to acknowledge that the Germans were victims too, for Jews to say: ‘Yes, we hear your pain, we understand.’ It may need the last of the survivors of the camps to die before that can happen. There’s still so much of the past to work through, so many psychological traumas, before we can accept the broader perspective.”

One of the great unwritten narratives of the second world war concerns the ejection immediately after the war of between 13 and 14 million ethnic Germans from their ancient homelands in Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia, as the borders of Poland and the Soviet Union were shifted westward. The “ethnic cleansing” of these displaced Germans, as well as those from the Sudetenland, resulted in more than two million deaths and what is still the largest single refugee movement in European history. Yet it remains scarcely known outside Germany. “In the immediate aftermath of the war and revelation of Nazi crimes, there was little sympathy for Germans,” writes the Oxford historian Mark Almond in the preface to Ursula Lange’s new book East Germany: What Happened to the Silesians in 1945 (Book Guild). “But the passage of time should open our eyes to the great sufferings inflicted on civilians whose only crime was their nationality.”

The wait for British eyes to open may not be long - in April, Anthony Beevor publishes Berlin: the Downfall, 1945 (Viking/Penguin), his follow-up to the surprise bestseller Stalingrad. He has produced a narrative of suffering and destruction, in which the gang rape of German women and the slaughter of children as the Soviets rampaged towards Berlin are vividly described. The truth of what happened during the Soviet onslaught against the Germans has long been repressed in Russia, marginalised as the inevitable consequences of war, though privately Soviet veterans joke about “two million of our children being born in Germany” and one former major is quoted by Beevor as saying that “our fellows were so sex-starved that they often raped old women of 60, 70 or even 80 - much to these grandmothers’ surprise, if not downright delight”. Beevor concentrates, too, on the expulsions from East Prussia: “It was the abrupt and total destruction of a whole region, with its own marked character and culture, emphasised perhaps because it had always been at the extremity of Germany on the Slav frontier.”

In the early 1950s, the plight of the German expellees - most of whom were absorbed into the largely agrarian states of Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg - was a source of rightwing revisionist agitation. A political party and a ministry for expellees were established to fight for their cause during a period of deep shock and silence in Germany. The late WG Sebald has written, in Air War and Literature (to be published next year by Hamish Hamilton), of his youthful wanderings through a purgatorial landscape of bomb-ruined cities, and of how so little was spoken and understood about the catastrophe that had unfolded in the German Reich. The Germans were, he said, wilfully blind: when they turned to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, they were always both “looking and looking away”. They could not comprehend the scale of their humiliation and defeat. They wished only to forget.

There’s little doubt that a terrible retribution was exacted on Germany at the end of the war, and only now, through the long perspective of suffering, are Germans beginning to understand and accept what happened to them, both as perpetrators and victims. Should we fear German normalisation? In many ways, Britain, with a postwar identity constructed from images of heroic resistance - the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, Churchillian rhetoric - has yet to embark on its own journey of normalisation, a process that would include a final reckoning with our own war crimes: the bombing of Dresden, say, or the closing of our borders to Jewish refugees, or our botched policies in Palestine.

Instead, we remain entombed in the past, enthralled and mesmerised by the figure of Adolf Hitler. Not a week passes, it seems, without a new portrait of the Führer or one of his henchmen being broadcast, or another psychobiography speculating about Hitler’s supposed homosexuality, coprophilia or monorchidism being published, as if the truth or otherwise of such things will help us to understand German fascism.

“When I think of Adolf Hitler,” wrote the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, in a celebrated phrase, “nothing occurs to me.” Today everything - anything - occurs to us when we think of Hitler, as if we see reflected in the mirror of his life and times an image of our own lost certainty and present confusion. We may no longer know who we are in this country, or where we’re heading, but we know that we’re not Nazis.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” wrote Pope. No one could accuse modern Berliners of having too little knowledge about the past. Their city, with its shattered churches and sites of dereliction, its Chicago-style glass towers coexisting uneasily with Soviet-era tower blocks, its rebuilt Reichstag and its magnificent new Jewish Museum, is the embodiment of what Mikhail Bakhtin called a “chronotope”, a place allowing us to roam through time and space, to see the past in the present. Berlin is at once a mausoleum, a city of ghosts, and a vibrant modern metropolis. It’s abnormal, and yet one of the most normal places I’ve ever visited.

Above all, Berlin reminds us definitively that without the living presence of the past, a better future can never be created. If that, in the end, is what normalisation means, we should welcome it.

Forward, to the union of humanity

October 15 2001 / New Statesman

Two centuries ago, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant also envisaged a world community. Jason Cowley welcomes a neo-Kantian in Downing Street.

“All wars are so many attempts to bring about new relations among the states and to form new bodies by the break-up of the old states to the point where they cannot again maintain themselves alongside each other and must therefore suffer revolutions until finally, partly through the best possible arrangement of the civic constitution internally, and partly through the common agreement and legislation externally, there is created a state that, like a civic commonwealth, can maintain itself automatically.”
Immanuel Kant, 1784

“Round the world, 11 September is bringing governments and people to reflect, consider and change… There is a coming together. The power of community is asserting itself… I have long believed this interdependence defines the new world we live in.”
Tony Blair, 2001

Everyone who is anyone in the world of letters has been scrambling to offer their interpretation of the world-changing events of 11 September. We have endured Martin Amis’s hyperbolic take on the collapse of the twin towers, all “sharking” planes, “world flashes” from the near future and “species-shame”. We have endured the hawkish pomposity of the well-known thriller writer Robert Harris, delivered in weekly despatches in the Daily Telegraph, for which he was no doubt hired as a lone maverick counter-intuitive voice, though he has emerged as someone capable only of attacking the left from the right, as it were. We have had Ian McEwan’s subtle meditations on the hijacked passengers’ expressions of love at the point of extinction, as well as far too much “expert” geopolitical analysis and the odd apocalyptic prediction or two.

But so far there has been no seminal essay, no work of insight and prescience to rival Francis Fukuyama’s essay The End of History, which so perceptively defined the mood of western triumphalism at the end of the cold war in 1989, while offering a persuasive philosophical explanation for the collapse of our old bipolar world.

In the absence of such a text, Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party conference deserves to enjoy a radiant afterlife, not least because of its curious and unexpected revival of a form of Kantian liberal internationalism, as expressed in his hope for the future harmony and interdependence of nations. “This is a moment to seize,” he said. “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are influx. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder the world around us… ‘By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we can alone’.”

Much has been made of the urgent tone of the speech - its messianic fervour and missionary zeal - and considerably less, if anything, of its philosophical foundations. This is to be regretted, because when Blair speaks of a “common thread of principle” uniting all nations, of “reordering” the world, of eradicating global poverty and ignorance, and of rebuilding a new interdependent world order from the wastes of conflict, he thrillingly, perhaps unconsciously, shares a vision of the future with the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s essays Perpetual Peace (1795) and Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent (1784) once provided the philosophical inspiration for contemporary liberal internationalism, and certainly influenced the foundation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

That Blair should discuss such ideas while he prepared to support the bombing of Afghanistan is not as absurd as it first seemed. Kant believed that war was the engine of history, a paradoxical mechanism for beneficial change as men reluctantly submitted themselves to the rule of law in order to avoid a relentless cycle of destruction: “The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.”

Kant saw how war weakened and impoverished nations, how it “stunted the full development of human nature”. He saw, too, how the ruinous effects of successive Conflicts could, because men are ultimately rational and self-interested, be turned to the advantage of human society, leading to greater concord and agreement between states. In time, they might lead towards a universal “civic constitution”, a prototype League of Nations (Kant was writing in the late 18th century, when there was no discernible world community).

In 1784, reflecting on centuries of turmoil in Europe, he found it “hard to suppress a certain disgust when contemplating men’s actions upon the world stage” - the kind of disgust one feels now, as the most technologically sophisticated nation on earth bombs one of the most primitive into bewildered submission. One finds, Kant continued, “in spite of apparent wisdom in detail that everything, taken as a whole, is interwoven with stupidity, childish vanity, often with childish viciousness and destructiveness”.

But Kant was far from despairing; rather, like Tony Blair, he believed in the possibility of progress and understood that war and conflict, though regrettable, were largely the inevitable expressions of what he called man’s “unsocial sociability”, and of a natural desire to protect one’s own local and international interests.

Kant was a teleologist. He believed that there was a direction and purpose to the development of history, that history was always moving towards its telos, its ultimate goal or end - and that end, as he saw it, was a perpetual peace between mutually interdependent democratic states under the rule of law, what he called a “civic commonwealth”.

Underscoring the Kantian notion of history is the idea of progress and, in particular, the idea of scientific progress, through which one generation adapts and improves on the discoveries and errors of those who have gone before. Which means that the history of ideas can be compared to the history of technology - ideas follow successively on from one another, being refined or rejected, just as you cannot invent a microwave oven before you have invented an electric power generator.

It does not necessarily follow that an advanced society is morally superior to an underdeveloped society; yes, microwaves are handy, but you cannot have an H-bomb until you have an A-bomb. However, the more advanced a culture, according to Kant, the greater the opportunity for the greatest number of people to fulfil their potential, their telos. In less advanced societies, such as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where life is rigidly ritualised and education for women forbidden, fewer people have the capacity to reach their potential, and thus religion remains a powerful attraction. As Nietzsche wrote, in Human, All Too Human (1879): “People to whom their daily life appears too empty and monotonous easily grow religious; this is comprehensible and excusable, only they have no right to demand religious sentiments from those whose daily life is not empty and monotonous.”

One of the great sadnesses of the contemporary Islamic world - and perhaps the underlying reason for its prevailing failures -is its loss of faith in the progressive nature of scientific knowledge. Unable to free themselves from metaphysical explanations of the world, many Muslims have ceased to dare to know, which for Kant was the true definition of enlightenment. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage,” he wrote. “Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know.” That there is no successful modern Islamic state to rival the superabundance, diversity and freedoms of the west is another source of puzzlement and disenchantment to a people who, after all, were blessed with what they saw as the last and definitive revelation of the great monotheistic religions.

Kant’s writings on history were hugely influential on Hegel, and indeed indirectly on Marx, both of whom identified history as developing through patterns of conceptual connections. For Hegel, history proceeds through the successive resolution of contradictions, as every complex situation creates its own internally conflicting elements, which in turn give rise to new states of affairs that are themselves undermined by their own internal contradictions, and so on in perpetuity. For a Marxist, the goal of history is a classless society, and history is propelled not by a kind of Hegelian universal consciousness (Geist, or world spirit), but by the interplay of economic forces. Here, the class struggle replaces the Hegelian dialectic and Kant’s “unsocial sociability” as the engine of history.

The spectacular failure of communism to remake the world for the better, the rise of fascism in Europe and the perceived ineffectiveness of the League of Nations and the United Nations in countering further conflicts contributed to diminished interest in Kantian universalism during the great stagnation of the cold war. But Kant’s ideas remain persuasive and powerfully relevant, not least because, apart from occasional lapses into mysticism, he is, again like Blair, a liberal optimist, defining progress in human terms, rather than in accordance to any divine plan. (Nevertheless, like a good Aristotelian, he does at one stage in Idea for a Universal History unfortunately suggest that the history of mankind “could be viewed on the whole as the realisation of a hidden plan of nature in order to bring about an internally - and for this purpose also externally - perfect constitution; since this is the only state in which nature can develop all faculties of mankind”. This is where Kant and Blair seem to diverge, be cause nowhere does Blair speak of history’s “hidden plan” - though, as a Christian, he no doubt grapples daily with his own intensely felt eschatology.)

Like Fukuyama, Kant believed that history would eventually reach a state of rest, in which liberal democracies adhering to the rule of law would find it impossible to go to war with one another and would thus work together towards the universal goal of world peace. For Fukuyama, history has ended (by which he means history as a battle between rival world-transforming ideologies, not the innumerable small details and events of everyday history, such as the fall of a government or a plane crash) because the universal movement towards the realisation of human potential has found its ultimate expression in liberal democracy as the only viable system of government. That authoritarian Islam has emerged as the great counter-narrative to secular liberal democracy does not invalidate Fukuyama’s central thesis, nor, I think, is he wrong to suggest that, once a society adopts the scientific method “as a primary means for obtaining knowledge, it is set on an irreversible path towards market economics and liberal democracy”.

Fukuyama’s triumph was to resurrect the discredited Kantian idea that there is a coherent direction to history, a discernible progressive pattern to human events - an idea to which Blair evidently adheres. This is not to say that earlier stages of history will not repeat themselves, or that there will not be future wars or comparable falls into chaos and irrationality. Nor is Fukuyama’s thesis predictive, deterministic or utopian-he concedes it is unlikely that the whole world will ever be united at the end of history, in a universal coalition of harmonious states. Rather, Fukuyama simply suggests that, in the absence of transcendental imperatives, liberal democracy, for all its huge disparities and variations, remains the only possible form of political legitimacy, the model that offers the greatest possibility of wealth, health and happiness to the greatest number of people.

Which returns us to Kant and to his idea that in war lies the possibility of future peace, perhaps even a perpetual peace. “In the end,” he writes, “war itself will be seen as not only so artificial, in outcome so uncertain for both sides, in after effects so painful in the form of an ever-growing war debt that cannot be met, that it will be regarded as a most dubious undertaking. The impact of any revolution on all states on our continent, so closely knit together through commerce, will be so obvious that the other states, driven by their own danger but without any legal basis, will offer themselves as arbiters, and thus they will prepare the way for a distant international government. . .”

Almost 200 years after his death, Kant’s dream of an international government remains as distant as ever, especially when nightly we see the grotesque spectacle of bombs and food parcels being simultaneously dropped on the blighted people of Afghanistan. Yet while there is a neo-Kantian in Downing Street, and one who is an important figure on the world stage, an attempt to work out what Kant called “the civic union of the human race” remains an intriguing, if necessarily remote, possibility.

Philip Roth: The Will to Power

July 2001 / Atlantic Monthly; Prospect, Issue 65

In 1993 Philip Roth published Operation Shylock: a confession, a hysterical exploration of the disintegrating self. No writer had been more adept at exploiting postmodern ideas of the instability of the self and the slippage between autobiography and fiction, but this time it seemed as though Roth had reached a terminus, the point at which his stylised self-obsession had become a poetics of despair. As John Updike wrote, “this cultivation of hypothetical selves has become an end game.”

At the time of the publication of Shylock there was talk of Roth having suffered a breakdown and the novel reads as if it were written, if not exactly while he was in therapy, then in a kind of rapture of self-absorption: a Jewish-American writer called Philip Roth travels to Israel after a period of ill health to track down an imposter, a fanatic who is also called Philip Roth and who is scheming to lead the Jews out of the promised land. When Roth finally meets his avenging double, he is startled: “His face was the face I remembered seeing in the mirror during the months when I was breaking down. His glasses were off and I saw in his eyes my own dreadful panic of the summer before, my eyes at their most fearful when I could think of nothing else but how to kill myself.”

Shylock is a technically audacious, disturbing and, at times, very funny book; but it is also relentless, opaque and wearisomely self-congratulatory. In fact it reads how it is: the culmination of Roth’s fictional obsession with his own life. “Making fake biography, false history,” he has said, “concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life.” In Shylock the American Roth may or may not be working as a spy for Mossad; he may or may not be married to an English actress called Claire (Roth at the time was married to Claire Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated); and his career may or may not be identical to that of the actual Philip Roth, whose picture peers beakily from the dust jacket. In an elaborate preface, Roth suggests that Shylock is “as accurate an account as I am able to give of actual occurrences that I have lived through during my middle fifties and that culminated, early in 1988, in my agreeing to undertake an intelligence-gathering operation for Israel’s foreign intelligence service.” This was a period when, as it turned out, Roth was indeed falling apart: his marriage was disintegrating (it exploded in 1996 when Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, in which she condemned Roth’s misogyny and narcissism); he suffered some kind of mental collapse after taking the sleeping pill Halcion; and was being tormented in Jerusalem by an anti-Zionist imposter using his name.

But then, in a note at the end of the book, Roth reports that the confession we have just read is false. So have we read a confession or not? As always, it seems, Roth was adopting a strategy of complete disclosure interwoven with complete disavowal. “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography,” he has said. “I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction.”

In Shylock he was writing about himself for no one but himself. He had nowhere else to go-except, as it turned out, to go back to the beginning, to a time when he was more interested in the world than in himself. The result was something unprecedented in the history of modern letters: in his seventh decade, when most of his peers were entering the long twilight of their careers, Roth began to get better. He began to write better books: his best books-and none of them were explicitly about himself. Rather, he began writing the kind of state-of-the-nation novels that we in Britain have long since ceased to expect from our writers, in which national history is recast and the big picture is animated.

Roth began his comeback with Sabbath’s Theater (1995), the story of an arthritic 64-year-old former puppeteer called Mickey Sabbath who is driven to near madness by the death of his Croatian lover, Drenka, a woman so fabulously promiscuous that she once enjoyed four different lovers in a single day. It is a work of sexual frenzy: debauched, febrile, invigorating. We see Sabbath masturbating on Drenka’s grave as he recalls the self-obliterating ferocity of their sexual relationship and we follow his journey into the past and descent into Lear-like nothingness. We see him wandering the streets of New York, lost in the sublime of his own mind.

If Sabbath’s Theater was a study of tormented consciousness, the trilogy that followed-American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)-were different again. Here were novels of public protest, drawing inspiration from the epochal changes in post-war US society. Their pessimism of tone and implicit conservatism have led many in the US to assume that Roth had followed Saul Bellow in becoming a man of the right, in revolt against the tarnished freedoms of the 1960s, a period which did so much to form him as a writer and an individual.

Roth’s old fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman narrates the trilogy, living in semi-reclusive retreat from the world and his own turbulent past. Zuckerman was always childless but now, in his late sixties, after a life of tormented sexuality, he has become impotent and incontinent too. But these novels are not about him. “My seclusion is not the story here,” he says in I Married a Communist. “I don’t want a story any longer. I’ve had my story.”

So Zuckerman is less an active presence than a vehicle for other people’s stories; he becomes a device, the ideal chronicler who hospitably listens to the stories of others so as to remind us that, as Thomas Mann once put it, “in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” Each of the novels is angry and elegiac. Each has a tragic dimension and has as its hero an aspirant everyman who is ruined through becoming entangled in a web of public politics and private deceit.

American Pastoral is about a Jewish businessman called Seymour Levov who, as a youth growing up in Zuckerman’s neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, was known locally as “the Swede” because with his blond hair, blue eyes and vigorous athleticism he could not have seemed less like a Jew. The Swede was a schoolboy hero of Zuckerman’s: a sports star who lived the American dream, marrying an Irish beauty queen with whom he settled down to a life of affluent contentment. Early in the novel, Zuckerman runs into the Swede in a New York restaurant. They have not seen each other for decades and they begin chatting. Zuckerman is struck by Levov’s conventional simplicity: his life has been a chain of smooth successes, “just great, right in the American grain.” But not long afterwards, at a high school reunion, Zuckerman meets the Swede’s brother. The Swede is now dead; he was suffering from cancer at the time of his meeting with Zuckerman. Slowly we learn more about the Swede’s life: that in 1968 his beloved 16-year-old daughter, Merry, a member of the antiwar group called the Weathermen, blew up a post office, killing a doctor. After that she went on the run, withdrawing deeper into the underground, beyond the reach of the law and of her parents. The Swede’s marriage was destroyed by the vilification of his daughter; his business faltered and then failed. Meanwhile, the Vietnam war goes on and resentment seethes.

Zuckerman is astounded by his misreading of the Swede-“Never was I more mistaken about anyone in my life.” In an act of imaginative appropriation, he decides to retell the story of the Swede’s collapse. In so doing, he returns to the neighbourhood of their youth and finds that the once quiet, harmonious streets of Newark have become a moronic inferno of violence and racial hatred. This then is not so much an American pastoral as a counter-pastoral; what Roth calls the “indigenous American berserk.”

I Married a Communist follows a similar trajectory. Once again, Zuckerman meets an old acquaintance, this time it is his former schoolteacher, Murray Ringwold. He has news of the terrible fall of his brother Ira Ringwold, who was widely known as the actor Iron Rinn, star of a popular radio series. The communist of the title, Ira is destroyed twice over-by the betrayal of his wife, the actress Eve Frame (a thinly disguised portrait of Claire Bloom) and by unsubstantiated denunciations in a time of McCarthyite paranoia. Growing up in Newark, Ira had been something of an inspiration and surrogate father to the young Zuckerman, who recalls his own journey into political awareness while offering an authentic portrait of a 1940s and 1950s America, often soft-edged with melancholy. (Throughout his career, Roth has returned to the lost Newark of his boyhood, where he grew up the son of an insurance salesman, as if he were retracing his own steps in search of when his life took a wrong turn.)

John Updike has written disparagingly of what he calls the “blocks of talk” in Roth’s books-the hectoring, didactic dialogue and the speechifying excesses. Large sections of I Married a Communist are static, unfurling in pages of unbroken dialogue as Murray relays his brother’s story. Too much of Ira’s life is told, not shown-his early political engagement; his courting of, and subsequent battles with, Eve Frame, whose bourgeois indulgences represent all that he once loathed; his wartime experiences in Iran, which radicalised him. As a result, we struggle to feel the pathos of Ira’s fall; we simply have to take his brother’s word for what happened.

I Married a Communist may be flawed-written perhaps too quickly-but it remains, like all of Roth’s recent work, a powerful attempt to show how individual idealism is dislocated and then destroyed by the forces of senseless history. Ira longed to become his “own uncorrected first self,” a new man in the communist model; but Roth reminds us that hopeful provincials such as the Swede and Ira are never truly free: they are always liable to be “impaled on their moment,” caught in “the traps set for them by their era.”

The Human Stain is the most urgent and most contemporary of the trilogy: set in the summer of 1998, the “summer of Monica” and a president’s humiliation. It is essentially a novel about that most incendiary of issues, both in the US and increasingly in Britain: race. Coleman Silk is a distinguished Jewish professor of classics at Athena college in New England. He is imperious and remote, “an autocratic ego” who is sceptical of the theoretical turn in the liberal arts. His colleagues have long nurtured resentment of him and seize their opportunity to topple him when he describes two long absent pupils as “spooks”-meaning ghosts. In the tense, riven world of American academe, his remark is misunderstood as a racist slight as these pupils are black.

When Silk meets up with Nathan Zuckerman he is defeated: his wife has died, he has been denounced as a racist and forced to leave Athena and a former female colleague is pursuing him ruthlessly. His only compensation is that, with the help of Viagra, he has been enjoying a passionate relationship with an illiterate cleaner (how often Roth’s characters find lovers among the poor and uneducated). When Silk dies suspiciously in a car accident, Zuckerman discovers that he was not born a white Jew, but a fair-skinned African American, that his whole life had been an elaborate deceit, an attempt to evade the truth about his racial identity. Zuckerman’s role in the novel, as in American Pastoral, is to listen and then to recreate the story of Silk’s counterlife, which once more returns him to the Newark of both his and Silk’s adolescence.

Coleman Silk’s attempt to escape from his own biological narrative is at once a metaphor for the American dream of being reborn, of remaking yourself in a new land, and also a continuation of the question raised in the first two books of the trilogy as to how free the individual is when confronted by the inexorable forces of history. Roth’s view of history is dark, dystopian and deterministic: the Swede, Ira Ringwold and Coleman Silk are all essentially decent men who have been destroyed by forces outside of their control, the forces of history to which they are remorselessly fettered.

They are also victims of the “tyranny of propriety” in American public life: the Swede is wounded by the contempt of those who blame him for the monstrosity of his daughter; Ira is publicly eviscerated after his wife publishes a confessional memoir which alleges that her former husband was a Soviet spy, just as Claire Bloom published a memoir about Roth; and Silk is destroyed by academics so sanctimonious that they have allowed little policemen to live inside their heads. And yet these three men are in a way culpable, authors of their own decline, because they have allowed themselves to believe in the possibility of America, in the immigrant’s dream of affluent fulfillment: searching for secular redemption they longed to become the engines of their own self-creation, freed from the past. But Roth reminds us, again and again, that the founding dream of America is an illusion; paradise was lost long before it was ever found.

Roth’s latest novel, The Dying Animal, is different from and yet an extension of the trilogy’s preoccupation with recent political history. It is narrated by David Kepesh, a callous libertine on the book chat circuit, whom we last encountered in The Professor of Desire (1977). Before that, in the parable-like The Breast (1972), a baroque farrago which must count as one of Roth’s worst novels, Kepesh mutated into a gigantic breast. Now, in this new book, he has fallen in love with, well, a breast-a pair of them, to be precise. They belong to one of his students, a wealthy, charming 24-year-old Cuban-American, Consuela Castillo, whose thrilling desirability enchants, infatuates and tortures Kepesh.

We first meet Kepesh eight years after his affair with Conseula began, and we discover that he has been wounded by the experience, that he thinks about this woman, whom he no longer sees, continually. He often masturbates to the memory of her body and his jealousy is undiminished by the years of her absence.

Consuela and Kepesh’s relationship is bathed in a flow of body fluids and copulation. Roth is a self-styled “extremist writer.” Almost from the start he splashed in a pool of obscenity, indulging his desire to offend-not least the Jewish community in which he grew up, with his depictions of ordinary secular Jews struggling to adapt to a life of superabundance and temptation in assimilationist America.

Kepesh is a product of 1960s rebellion. Long ago he renounced any pretence at living what he sees as a conventional life, one constrained by monogamy and routine relationships, and he is used to sleeping with his students, with any number of women. But Kepesh’s relationship with Conseula is different. For a start, he is maddeningly jealous of her youth, of the boyfriends she has had and may have, when he, an aged and shrunken star of the ephemeral microphone, is dead. Or worse, impotent. And it is death, which gives this novel its remarkable charge and compulsion (and its devastating denouement).

In The Dying Animal, sex is Kepesh’s protective shield, which enables him to affirm his solitude, to live under extremes of isolation and threat. But it is not enough. Kepesh, at the end of his life, has been humbled, forced to re-evaluate the codes by which he has lived-the licentiousness, the irresponsibility, the refusal to conform. Later, when Conseula becomes (cruelly and schematically) ill with breast cancer and seeks help from Kepesh, the professor has to choose between self-affirmation and some kind of fellow-feeling.

The Dying Animal is full of startling inversions and political reversals. Here we re-encounter Kepesh, the old sexual adventurer, at a moment of profound crisis: What if my life has been wrong, he seems to be asking himself? What if my perpetual pursuit of sexual satisfaction was a kind of defeat? Have the costs of living through the revolutionary period of the 1960s been too great to wider society?

Roth is here presenting a portrait of the emptiness of the 1960s and an argument against them. In this, he shares a thematic preoccupation with the maverick French writer Michel Houellebecq, a former communist whose novel, Atomised, is a corruscating denunciation of the decade of sexual liberation, which, he thinks, destroyed the traditional family, “the last unit separating the individual from the market.” In Houellebecq, as in Roth, the freedoms of the radical decade have turned out to be a kind of imprisonment; battles were won but the dead are everywhere, victims of the fallout from the counter-culture.

The Dying Animal has received a mixed reception in the US, with Roth once more accused of indulging his libidinal anguish. Zoë Heller, in the New Republic, booed the loudest. “To hold Roth accountable for the dispiriting strain of… womanphobia that runs through his novels is not idly to confuse Roth with his characters. It is, rather, to acknowledge that one of the areas in which a writer most nakedly asserts himself or herself is in the choice of subject. Roth’s implied moral commentary on Kepesh is all very well, but if he did not believe that an old goat’s agonising about a pneumatic 24-year-old was not representative of the human dilemma-was not deserving of our sympathetic attention-he wouldn’t be writing about it, would he?”

Roth may, as Heller suggests, reveal his moral prejudices through returning fanatically to the same subjects-the fragmentation of family, the failure of feminism to liberate men and women from mutual antagonism, the corruption of rampant individualism-but at least his chosen subjects are inherently interesting, they matter. In fact they are as one with the faultlines running through modern political discourse, whether in the anguished dialogue taking place between liberals and social conservatives within the Labour party in Britain, or the recent moral confrontations in France and Germany, where so many senior politicians are being forced to account for the excessive irresponsibility of their revolutionary youth.

Roth’s women may be a force of chaos, deliverers of destruction-predictably depicted as sexual predators or wounded victims, as vengeful wives or remorseful lovers, complicit illiterates or book-smart academics-but Roth’s men fare little better. Kepesh, Zuckerman, Mickey Sabbath-they are either defeated or in retreat from the world, exhausted survivors who are diminished by illness and guilty memory. So perhaps it is not so much that Roth is a mechanical misogynist as a clear-eyed realist: he sees us as we really are, with the façades down-and both suffering and the need for patience are perpetual.

In an interview with David Remnick in the New Yorker last year, Roth spoke of how he no longer listens to the standard criticisms of his work: that he is a self-hating Jew; that he is in thrall to gruesome effects; that his work is ego-ridden and exhibitionistic; that he actually hates women. There was a time, however, when he used to listen too much, especially after the controversy that followed the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) his semi-pornographic study of a young middle-class Jewish adolescent’s journey into disenchanted maturity (the young Portnoy famously masturbates using a piece of liver).

Portnoy was an international bestseller which made Roth rich. In writing the novel Roth, according to New York magazine, had “kicked the nice Jewish boy bit, the stance of the Jamesian moral intelligence, and unleashed his comic foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed demon. His true self.” For a time he became one of the most famous people in the US, a regular on talk shows and in gossip columns, a writer-celebrity. “To become a celebrity is to become a brand name,” he wrote. “There is Ivory soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; Philip Roth the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver. And makes a million out of it.”

Ever since then it seems Roth has been in retreat from what Saul Bellow called the “event glamour” of contemporary society, from the buzz of gossip and consumerism that so defines our modernity. Today he has withdrawn still further, living alone in semi-reclusive seclusion in rural Connecticut. There, after the painful and very public collapse of his marriage, he has found a kind of autumnal freedom, working to his own austere rhythm, sometimes writing all day and into the night. He has endured major heart surgery, his health has been erratic, but he told the New Yorker-“I have to tell you that I don’t believe in death, I don’t experience my time as limited. I know it is but I don’t feel it. I could live three hours or I could live 30 years, I don’t know. Time doesn’t prey upon my mind.”

It is hard to believe him when he says this-because his recent work is saturated in death and illness, with an imminent sense of an ending. In any event, as Nathan Zuckerman wrote, in a letter to his creator, Philip Roth: “With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented.” So why should we accept Roth’s word now when we were encouraged never to believe him in the past?

Certainly, reading the trilogy and Sabbath’s Theater you sense that here is a writer, even at the age of 68, who burns to invent. His fiction has a 19th-century grandeur, an existential frenzy of the kind once familiar from the work of, say, Dostoevsky, Conrad or Céline but which has largely disappeared from the Anglo-American novel. So the more you read of the late Roth, the more you are convinced that, despite his own protestations, he is writing against extinction: he is a writer who works to the sound of death panting behind him-and what death-haunted work he has produced so late in the day.

Speaking in 1960, not long into his career, Roth marvelled at the fantastic nature of modern reality and of how the writer will struggle to compete with the bewildering nature of American history. “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Yet Roth has remained true to his youthful vision of the writing life, his mission to document the defining particulars of his age, to submerge himself in waves of contemporary reality, to cover the world in fiction. No other American writer-not overwriting Bellow, with his anti-hero Herzog; not Updike, with his family of Rabbits and their hick everyman musings; and not DeLillo, with his cast of paranoids-has created characters as memorable or alive as Nathan Zuckerman or David Kepesh, or endowed his books with such philosophical urgency, making us think that the novel still matters.

There is a reason for this, I think. John Updike’s vision of the world is essentially benign; he is a professional writer, comfortable with his talent and affluence and seemingly selecting his subjects with the insouciance of a child-what will it be today, the court of Hamlet or miscegenation in Brazil? He is also a believer in God, so he has his consolation. Bellow, though agnostic, believes in the soul: to him empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. This other reality is always sending us hints that we cannot receive without art. As for DeLillo, if he believes in anything, it is the power of conspiracies, the mysterious networks and covert connections that shape our lives.

But Philip Roth believes in nothing except the world of his fiction. He is fearlessly beholden to no one. He is a hard nihilist. All political schemes to remake the world, he seems to be saying in recent novels, are doomed. If we are anything, we are liars: the truth about us is endlessly mysterious and we know nothing of those around us. His fictional alter egos, his tortured, superfluous men, are resolutely earth-bound as they muse on the futility of ambition in the face of certain annihilation. Their respite is found in an intense erotic abandon, a willful succumbing to preposterous desires-and, as David Kepesh puts it, to the relentless “stupidity of being oneself,” to the “unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all.” But always in Roth it is too late, the world is already out of joint. As the Swede must discover in American Pastoral, “the worst lesson that life can teach is that it makes no sense.

Letter from Cyprus: The view beyond the Green Line

March 11 2001 / The Independent

Perhaps only Trieste, the cosmopolitan port on the shadowy, disputed borderlands between Italy and the former Yugoslavia, and Lisbon, with its brooding sense of an empire lost, have quite the same atmosphere as Cyprus: the same sense of vivid ghostliness. With its geographic position between three continents and as the troubled juncture between clashing civilisations, Cyprus is a country not of one dividing line, but many.

Drive north for a couple of miles out of boisterous Agia Napa and you soon arrive on the edges of the ghost town of Famagusta, once the most vibrant tourist centre in Cyprus but now a site of monumental dereliction. Soon you can drive no further because you have reached the heavily fortified “Green Line” that runs like a scar across the island, separating Greek from Turk, a scar of war and ethnic hatred.

Tourism on the island had yet another record-breaking year in 2000. The popularity of Agia Napa has contributed to the boom. A former fishing village, Agia Napa suddenly, last summer, supplanted Ibiza as the hedonistic capital of the Mediterranean - a place where the bullet-headed British young come to dance and drink and, they hope, have sex in a kind of frenzy. Mindless b******s, the locals call it.

Today it is eerily quiet in Famagusta. It always is. No one seems to be stirring in the late afternoon sunshine. Peering through binoculars across a nowhere zone of barren scrubland, razor wire, barricades and ruined white-washed cottages, I am startled to see a Turkish soldier looking back at me through his own binoculars. Mounted high on a sentry post, he is the only moving object in a landscape of stillness and desolation. To visit Famagusta is like finding yourself adrift on a film set of a JG Ballard novel: there are empty houses, abandoned shops and hotels, and even a garage, replete with a showroom full of big, gas-guzzling Fords - all largely untouched since the Turkish invasion and de facto partition of the island in 1974.

The young soldier probably wasn’t even born when the ethnic Greek villagers of Famagusta fled their homes after the invasion, never to return. As a car pulls up, I watch an old woman get out, approach the UN-patrolled “Green Line”, and begin gesturing forlornly. She used to live in Famagusta, her son, the driver, tells me. Every weekend they drive out from Larnaca to one of the watchtowers that are strung out along these borderlands, from where she looks through a telescope at her old house, which she can neither visit nor reclaim.

Her story is a familiar one: wherever I travelled on the island, on both sides of the line, I met people for whom the events of 1974 had given their lives an ineradicable undertone of mourning. More than 200,000 people were, in the contemporary argot, ethnically cleansed from their homes in 1974, as the Turkish army responded to a coup in mainland Greece by occupying the fertile, more affluent northern part of the island, including the treasured port of Kyrenia. As the terrified Greeks, who constituted more than four-fifths of the population of the occupied areas, fled south, Turkish Cypriots made the journey in reverse, abandoning their homes. The two communities have remained divided ever since. It is hard to believe that only a couple of miles down the road from Famagusta, the bars and nightclubs of Agia Napa will soon be opening for yet another night of licentious abandon.

But that’s the appeal of Cyprus - too often it is caricatured as being no more than a bucket-and-spade destination for the cheap sun and booze crowd, but, in fact, it is one of the most appealing resort locations in Europe, certainly if you like to combine sun and sea with history and a little bit of politics.

I spent virtually all my time on the island line-hopping, as it were, moving between the town and the country, the ancient and the modern, the past and the present - and between sites of Islam and Orthodox Christianity. “Different invasions [have] weathered and eroded Cyprus, piling monument upon monument,” wrote Lawrence Durrell in Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, his travelogue of 1957, in which he obliquely monitored the mounting tensions between Greeks and Turks, and the Greek campaign for enosis, unity with the homeland.

It is still the same: for everywhere you visit there are traces of what has been before, often in the most incongruous locations. In popular Paphos, for instance, which since 1974 has been transformed into a teeming tourist town, you can step out of your bright, shining, air-conditioned, high- rise hotel and within minutes find yourself wandering among Greek and Roman architectural sites of extraordinary richness and variety.

A sense of the proximity of the past is all around you, especially in the small hill villages surrounding the main towns, where you may find abandoned mosques, Roman mosaics or ruined castles. The effect of all this is the same as when you stumble on a pillbox in the English countryside or a trench line in a field in northern France - the past, you realise, is never actually past: it always reverberates strangely in the present. As Durrell wrote, in Cyprus you “never stop stumbling upon many echoes from forgotten moments of history with which to illuminate the present”.

Cyprus has been predominantly Christian since its conversion by Saints Paul and Barnabas in 45AD, but the occupation of the island by Ottoman Turks, in 1571, means that there has been a long Islamic influence and presence, too. Mosques are part of the cultural patrimony of the island and they survive even in the Greek Cypriot enclaves, a reminder of a time when Greek and Turk lived together, if not in harmony then at least in uneasy alliance.

Across the Green Line, however, in the rogue Turkish sector of Nicosia (the last divided capital in Europe) there is very little religious tolerance. All the old Greek Orthodox churches I visited had long since been converted into mosques. It was the same in Kyrenia. (There is a community of elderly Greeks living in the remote Turkish-controlled Karpasia peninsula, the north-east tip of the island, but their numbers are dwindling fast.)

The history of Cyprus is so curious and complex, so much of its growth haphazard and serendipitous, that the streets of its ever- changing towns are like a palimpsest with successive generations failing quite to erase the influence of those who have gone before. A sense of the past is what impresses itself most; and it is this perhaps, as much as the long hot summers and Mediterranean languor, that is the source of the island’s fascination.

On my last day I decided to visit Kyrenia, a privilege denied to anyone with a Cypriot passport or, indeed, with a Greek name. You cannot take your hired car across the border, nor can you stay later than 5pm, unless, of course, you go direct to North Cyprus in the first instance, which, as it happens, is anything but direct as the “North” is not internationally recognised and hence no airline will fly there.

Fortunately, once you cross the line, there are any number of Turkish taxi drivers touting for business at the border checkpoint. Business is swiftly done and you are on your way to Kyrenia, which is certainly worth paying black market rates to visit. With its intimate harbour of small fishing boats and bars, crumbling castle, labyrinthine streets and surrounding mountains, the town is surely the loveliest in all Cyprus. Greek Cypriots have never stopped mourning their exclusion from Kyrenia. I lost count of the times I spent in waterfront bars listening to songs (which had the melancholy appeal of Portuguese fado music) about the loss of Kyrenia.

On this side of the Green Line - despite the settlement of more than 100,000 mainland Turks here since 1974 - it isn’t hard finding someone who remembers a time before partition. My taxi driver, for instance, who was born and grew up in Paphos. His questions were the same as those of the Greek Cypriots I had met. What is it like on the other side? How has it changed?

The sadness of contemporary Cyprus, with its actual and metaphorical lines of division, is that today only a fortunate traveller can attempt to answer such questions.

The March of Labour Halted: the post-war consensus unravels

October 30 2000 / New Statesman

Most of us have a year of great personal or political moment, which, for whatever reason, resonates peculiarly, so that something like a chance hearing of a half-forgotten pop song or a casual newspaper reference to distant events can return us to the sights, sounds and textures of a world of yesterday. To me, there has always been something extraordinarily memorable about 1977, the year of the emerging punk and disco scenes, of the Silver Jubilee celebrations and the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders - something bound up with the country that Britain once was, and irreversibly became.

I’m not alone, it seems, in finding special resonance in 1977; in the past 12 months or so, there has been a curious (and coincidental) confluence of books and films that use the events of this year as the starting point for a series of imaginative retrospectives, exploring themes such as alienation, social dysfunction and the end of a certain kind of England. The best of these include John King’s novel Human Punk, which is about a young DJ from the London suburbs rendered unstable by violence and boredom; David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy Seven, a fictional recreation of the north of England during the time of the Ripper murders; and Whatever Happened to Harold Smith, an amusing, low-budget British film about the adventures of a young man caught between the allure of punk and disco.

What all of these works share, apart from the year of their setting, is a dramatic understanding of the transitional nature of 1977. For it was the year, too, when the postwar Butskellite consensus finally began to unravel, when the failure of the Heath administration, the high inflation of the mid-1970s and then the financial crises of the Callaghan years led the small group of maverick advisers and thinkers gathering around Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph to believe that history was at last moving in their direction. In the view of those seeking to mould a new right consensus, the country not only in decline, it was in thrall to an intellectually discredited “Keynesian” orthodoxy, in which equality and social justice were pursued at the expense of liberty; full employment at the expense of ruinously high inflation; and the collective - as represented by union power and big, interventionist government - was prized over the individual.

As Thatcher, once in power, began purging her opponents from the Cabinet, it was fashionable to be on the right again, and ideas that once seemed dangerously subversive acquired a radical chic. The left found itself in an alarmed retreat from which it took more than a generation to recover, but only through accepting many Thatcherite orthodoxies. The right had won the economic argument, if not the cultural one, too.

The early radical Conservatives (or Thatcherites, as they were later known) - many of whom, such as Alfred Sherman of the Centre for Policy Studies, were former Marxists - were propelled by messianic zeal. They wanted to remake not only the Conservative Party, but the entire nation. In 1977, Sherman and the Centre for Policy Studies published a series of pamphlets outlining the way ahead. The unions and the “overmanned” nationalised industries, in particular, were identified as being the enemies of progress in an enterprise economy. If Britain was to be modernised, so the argument went, then the industrial practices and policies of much of the postwar period would have to be reversed.

The feeling, as the political philosopher John Gray has written, was one of “radical discontinuity with the past”. The aim was not simply to return the Conservatives to power; it was to change society irreversibly. And there was something clandestine, almost Bolshevik, about the early Thatcherites: gathering in dining clubs, in think-tanks, or for monthly salons at Jonathan Aitken’s house in Lord North Street, Westminster, they saw themselves as fighting a war of ideas against an enfeebling postwar consensus. They saw themselves as mould-breakers, iconoclasts, even revolutionaries. They were romantics. And some of them were visionaries, too. Among those who attended Aitken’s salons were Richard Nixon, Ian MacGregor (who would later lead the Tory attack against Arthur Scargill and the miners), John Gray, John Aspinall, Roger Scruton, Enoch Powell, Peregrine Worsthorne, Paul Johnson and Tom Stoppard.

In 1977, I had recently left primary school, so I was largely unaware of the currents of change flowing beneath the surface of the country’s political life. What I did understand, however, growing up in the nowhere zone of the Essex-Hertfordshire borderlands, was that Britain in the mid- to late-1970s was an extraordinarily drab place in which to be young: closed, parochial, complacent, tired.

To recall the landscape of my early teenage years is to return to an unrecognizable England: a country that was racist and corrupt, and hostile to any kind of eccentricity or difference; one riven by strikes and social unrest. Britain was then a country renowned for little but its bad food, awful public architecture (one need only visit the “new” towns that were built after the war to realise how little thought went into the planning of our public spaces), police corruption, and industrial malaise. And reading the music press, the NME and other papers as I did then, I knew that others felt the same as I did, felt that the old order was rotten to the core and deserved to be blasted away. What else could explain the anger of the punks, and of the new-wave bands that followed them?

I worked as a paperboy throughout 1977. My main interest then was sport; but I still used to read the headlines on the front pages before pushing the papers through the various letterboxes (and sometimes into the eager mouth of a hostile dog) on my early morning rounds. I understood even then, just as the Queen prepared to celebrate her first 25 years on the throne, that all was not right in the country. For a start, young women kept being murdered. I shall never forget the strange sense of fear and excitement I felt whenever I arrived at the local “paper shop”, to be told by the newsagent - a severe, bald-headed former gold prospector - that “he’s struck again”. I always knew what he meant: that he was speaking about the Ripper. The Yorkshire Ripper. He seemed to haunt all of our imaginations in 1977.

I recall, on several occasions, returning home from school with friends to ring the police hotline, on which you could hear the “Ripper’s voice”. He had a Geordie accent and was taunting the officer in charge of investigations (the call was later revealed to be a hoax). David Peace, in his novel, captures well the atmosphere of unease and suspicion that surrounded the Ripper murders, which darkened still further when Peter Sutcliffe (who was not caught until January 1981) began, for the first time in 1977, to murder non-prostitutes. Peace is very good on the corruption of the West Yorkshire police and on evoking the stink and decay of the industrial landscape through which the Ripper moved. The newsagent, “Vic”, was one of Thatcher’s “little people”: a small, independent businessman who was insurgent on all fronts. He felt that the country, as he put it, had “gone to the dogs”, and never wearied of telling anyone willing to listen about who was to blame - Labour and socialism, needless to say.

Amusingly, Vic had an adolescent son, a giant man-boy, who played centre-half for the best youth football team in our town and of whom his father was inordinately proud (I later found out that the boy was adopted). Until, that was, he became a punk and began turning up for his paper round (which was much shorter than the rest of ours) with his hair spiked, wearing painted boots, ragged tartan trousers and a ripped leather jacket. This seemed to disappoint his father.

But he ought not to have been too hard on his man-boy, because father’s and son’s rebellions were rooted in the same mutual disgust with the mediocrity and complacency of 1970s Britain. In this respect, I think, punk can be seen as a right-wing, consensus-smashing and counter-revolutionary ideology. There were avowedly left-wing punk bands, such as The Clash. But, more often than not, the more interesting punk and new-wave bands - Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division - experimented with fascistic imagery and, like the Thatcherites, were set on breaking violently with the past. There was a darkness to their vision that was resolutely anti-Utopian: they knew, like believers in original sin, that they inhabited the worst of all possible worlds.

Punk was, essentially, a movement of working-class disaffection. It was the music of rebellion and simplicity. Anyone could be a punk: you didn’t even have to be an accomplished musician, or have access to expensive recording equipment. You simply required attitude, a few battered instruments and a rage to be different. “Punk stripped rock music down to the basics, and that was fantastic,” said Tony Wilson, the founder of the influential, independent Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester.

Many of the punk bands, Sex Pistols included, experimented with nihilism; but Joy Division - whom Wilson managed and whose singer-songwriter, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23 - meant it. Joy Division were never strictly a punk band - even in 1977, when the members were novices and their music had a hard-edged, DIY rawness. There was a complexity and lyrical sophistication to their sound that was quite unlike any other band at the time. Bernard Sumner - the bass player in Joy Division, who later became the frontman of New Order - has spoken of how the melancholy of Joy Division’s sound was an expression of the hopelessness and monotony of the post-industrial landscape of the Manchester of his childhood. “In those days, when you left school, you got a dead-end job that you hated. You grafted, and it rained all the time. There was mass unemployment. The old factories were coming down. Unoccupied buildings, all the windows smashed in. It was virtually a ghost town. You left school and went: ‘Oh, God. This is it.’”

In 1977, many people must have left school and asked themselves the same thing - if this, indeed, was it. Certainly, the Labour government, dominated by the unions, and moving between opportunistic monetarism and disastrous mismanagement of the economy, offered little hope or inspiration. If Labour were left, and were this mediocre, shouldn’t we think about moving to the right? Many did - including a disaffected Ian Curtis, who voted Conservative at the 1979 election, as did Harold Pinter and many other self-styled radicals like him.

One of my most vivid memories of 1977 is of being taken by my parents to central London to watch the Queen’s Silver Jubilee parade. I recall - however inaccurately - a cool, grey day, and impatiently mingling with the crowds lining the route that her absurdly opulent carriage would take. I remember glimpsing the Queen as she passed, waving from her carriage, and my lingering feelings of perplexity and bewilderment. Despite cheering gratuitously, I felt no sense of joy; nor, I am sure, did my parents, who were not so much enthusiastic monarchists as curious to see what all the fuss was about, and eager to be part of it all. But of what exactly? In retrospect, the Queen’s journey through London seems more like a funeral parade than a celebration of a vibrant nation.

More enjoyable was our street party in Essex, the only public event of its kind I have ever attended. Meticulously planned, organised and funded by a residents’ committee, the event was a success, combining street games, theatre, fancy-dress competitions and a night-time disco held at a local school. The only source of discord during the entire day was when, at the disco, a group of lads attempted to bully the DJ into playing the Sex Pistols’ gloriously ironic “God Save the Queen”, the banned single that was, fittingly, the unofficial No 1 in Jubilee week. It began: “God save the Queen/Fascist regime/She makes you a moron . . .”

It scarcely needs saying that the Thatcherite counter-revolution curdled, as most revolutions do, into something unpleasant and rigidly dogmatic. And yet, who can deny, even those on the old left, that there was something thrilling about the way in which a small group of maverick, renegade thinkers were able, through the force of their ideas, to move from the margins of a major political party to win control of its very centre, and in so doing remake the nation?

In its own way, the punk counter-revolution, which enjoyed its apotheosis in 1977 when “God Save the Queen” reached No 1 in the charts, remade the rock business, too. After punk, 1,000 small bands and record companies bloomed, launching an entire “indie” scene. But the energy of the punk scene was, in truth, quickly dissipated once the leading bands became even remotely successful. Because punk, like Thatcherism, was a movement of opposition, contempt and feelings of disenfranchisement nurtured it. As Alfred Sherman has said of his early commitment to radical Conservatism (but his words could equally apply to what Malcolm McLaren did with the Pistols): “Someone had to question the unquestioned, think the unthinkable, set our problems within a broader historical framework.”

In 1977, as women were being murdered in Yorkshire and the Queen was celebrating with a uniquely British pomposity, the nation was falling apart and someone needed to think the unthinkable, politically and culturally. In retrospect, the Silver Jubilee served not as the start of something, but as the beginning of the end. It was the point at which Britain realised it could go forward only by first going backward to dismantle the structures of the entire postwar consensus. The years that followed were often difficult and painful. There were inner-city riots, mass unemployment and a long, dispiriting miners’ strike. But, for better or worse, a sense of continuity in British society had been broken. The country would never be the same again.

Letter from Glasgow: Sectarian hatred and the Old Firm

August 27 2000 / The Independent

It used to be said that if you wanted to discover someone’s religion in Glasgow, you simply asked which football team they supported: the Protestant blue of Rangers or the Catholic green of Celtic. At one o’clock this afternoon the “Old Firm” Derby between the two sides kicks off at Parkhead in the east end of Glasgow - the start of what has been described as “ninety minutes of hate”. Today’s match has been given a special resonance by the recent appointment of Martin O’Neil, a Catholic Ulsterman, as Celtic manager, and by a summer of simmering sectarian tensions in Belfast (the Shankill and the Falls Roads often fall eerily quiet on Old Firm day).

There is nothing in world football to compare with the sectarian ferocity of the Glasgow Derby - not even the match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, in which the pride of Catalonia clashes with the hated Castilians from the Spanish capital. Last week, as I walked the streets of the “Barrowlands” in the east end of Glasgow, I was aware of a peculiar low-level tension, as if people were embracing themselves for the challenge ahead. Everyone I spoke to, every taxi driver I met, had an opinion about the Old Firm game, about the long years of struggle at Celtic (Rangers have been in the ascendance for more than a decade) and about a century of rivalry.

The east end has long been considered a Catholic stronghold - the impoverished grey towerblocks and decayed streets where many thousands of Irish immigrants settled in the second half of the 19th century (it was from within this community that Celtic was founded in 1888). And yet, intriguingly, the estates next to the Celtic stadium in Parkhead are Protestant enclaves, areas from which Rangers draw their support and from where members of the Orange Order set off to march every summer, in grotesque parody of more murderous rituals across the Irish Sea.

To walk these streets is to encounter the tensions of Belfast transplanted to Glasgow: pro-UVF and UFF graffiti blight the walls and bus-stops; the occasional Union flag hangs from a window, and the blue shirts of Rangers are worn with defiant pride, as they are in the pubs of the Shankill Road. Glasgow has been galvanised by change in the past decade. Slums have been cleared, smart restaurants and boutiques have arrived in Buchanan and Sauchiehall Streets. The arts have flourished, the university has expanded, new businesses have emerged to drive the engine of the local economy. But the areas around Parkhead, with their boarded-up shops and derelict properties, have somehow been forgotten in the rush to embrace a cosmopolitan cappuccino culture, in the desire to create a gentler, more welcoming image for the city. In such places, the old sectarian resentment festers.

Meanwhile, less than half a mile away from the Protestant enclaves, the Celtic squad is preparing at its Barrowfield Road training ground for the big game. It’s an unexpectedly warm morning, and the players appear relaxed, teasing one another like young boys. Nearby, a group of canny, street-smart lads dressed in jeans and Celtic shirts look on through the prison-like bars. When I approach them, they say how much they “hate” Rangers, how much they hate the “Protestant bastards”.

Anyone who has watched an Old Firm Derby understands that such hatred is real. Simon Kuper, in his fine book Football Against the Enemy, describes how one Old Firm clash, in 1975, provoked two attempted murders, two cleaver attacks, one axe attack, nine stabbings, and 35 common assaults. Nowadays, of course, football is calmer, the surveillance techniques and policing at matches immeasurably improved, but the potential for serious violence remains.

When Paul Gascoigne arrived in Scotland to play for Rangers in the mid-1990s, he made a drastic mistake in his first Old Firm match. Celebrating a goal, Gazza was encouraged by teammates to play an imaginary flute before the massed ranks of Celtic fans. Their fury shattered him. It was only later that Gascoigne understood that his act was a provocative symbol of Loyalist supremacy; that to play the “Orange” flute was to risk, if not death, then multiple death threats, as he soon discovered when, days later, a car drew up alongside his own at traffic lights. “This big guy wound down his window and called out to me,” Gazza said. “He went, `Gazza, you better watch what you’re doing up here, man. If you ever play that flute again, we’ll cut your throat’.”

Celtic stadium, which has a capacity of 60,000, is the second largest in Britain. It is, like the larger Old Trafford, a magnificent theatre. As I sat in the Jock Stein stand last week, looking out across the empty terraces and down at the immaculate green turf, in thrall to the cathedral hush of my surroundings, I tried to picture what lay ahead - the sound and fury of today’s game.

I recalled, too, how shocked Margaret Thatcher was said to have been when she was guest of honour at a Scottish Cup final in the 1980s and witnessed Celtic fans waving Irish republican tricolours, heard them jeering at the national anthem and singing pro-IRA songs. Poor old Mrs T - she had obviously never bothered to visit Celtic Park where the Irish and Scottish flags, but not the Union one, are raised proudly above the stadium. Nor had she listened to Rangers fans singing the Sash or mocking the dead IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Later I hitch a lift back to the centre of town with an old chap who turns out to be the father of the former Scotland and Celtic defender Tosh McKinley. McKinley Senior is a terrific character: a passionate Celtic fan (he shows me the tattoo of a green and white hooped Celtic shirt on his left forearm) and a proud father. He recalls how Tosh once broke the nose of Henrik Larsson, Celtic’s talented Swedish striker, in a training- ground brawl. “Tosh didnae want to hit him. But Larsson raised his arm first. If a man raises his arm in Glasgow, ya hit him. Ya hit him before he hits ya. Afterwards Tosh said, `Didnee not know where he is, like, that he’s in Glasgow now. You don’t raise your arm in Glasgow and expect not to be hit.’ “

There are many things, it seems, that you don’t do in Glasgow, certainly not at this time of year - such as wearing the wrong football shirt in the wrong part of town, such as singing the wrong kind of songs or playing the wrong kind of instrument. Back inside Mr McKinley’s car, the right kind of songs are playing: Irish folk songs, in which someone who sounds like Shane McGowan of the Pogues celebrates his love of Celtic and contempt for Rangers. “This one’s great,” says McKinley, leaning across to amplify the sound. “It’s all about big Duncan Ferguson [the despised former Rangers striker, now at Everton].”

The car eventually stops and I jump out. I have journeyed only a couple of miles across town but it is as if I’m in another country. There are no football shirts to be seen and the crowds on Buchanan Street have a kind of metropolitan hauteur. Yet when the whistle blows this afternoon, I shall regret not being there to hear that Old Firm roar as 60,000 people once again spin deliriously into hatred.

Letter from Trieste: the city between empires

June 25 2000 / The Independent

There is something mysterious and unaccountable about Trieste, a certain kind of vivid ghostliness that has struck many visitors to the cosmopolitan Adriatic port.

For a start, it is not really an Italian city at all, although Italian is the language you hear spoken on the streets. There is none of the noise, movement and colour you’d associate with Italian cities, in the north and south, none of the vibrant pavement nightlife - I was in Trieste, for instance, on the night of the European Cup final between Real Madrid and Valencia, and I missed the first 20 minutes because I couldn’t find a bar showing the game (I ended up in a kitsch Irish pub).

Rather, what strikes you about Trieste is a kind of lingering melancholy, for this is a city haunted by its past, as Austro- Hungary’s strategic gateway to the Mediterranean, and by Irredentist struggles and wars of liberation and oppression.

Trieste is one of those city-ports, like Odessa or Gdansk, which ought to belong to no country; indeed there was an attempt after the Second World War to create the “Free Territory of Trieste”, a strategic nowhere zone between East and West, a space for watchfulness and spies and black- marketeering.

Before Trieste was ceded permanently to Italy in 1954, what was known as Zone B of the Free Territory of Trieste was assigned to Yugoslavia; and there are Triestines, some of whom I met on my visit, who still mourn - rather like those haunted Germans expelled from their East Prussian homes after the war - the lost towns of Koper, Piran, Umag and Novigrad which are now divided between Slovenia and Croatia.

Jan Morris, who is writing a book provisionally entitled Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, served as a soldier in the divided city after the war and still returns there as often as possible. She recalls during the Cold War, the strange excitement of Trieste, with its massed ranks of American and British troops and with the “Iron Curtain being only a couple of miles away and all these people gathering on the border to trade illegally in things like jeans”.

What attracts Morris to Trieste is exactly what attracted me: the sense that when you are there you have reached the end of something, that you are in the last town in western Europe, a town surrounded by water and hills that seems somehow untouched by the homogenising effect of modernity. (I was relieved to find no McDonald’s or Burger King or Starbucks.)

Trieste overlooks the northernmost shores of the Adriatic Sea, and viewed from the surrounding hills, the city itself, with its tall, red-roofed buildings and narrow arterial roads, seems to be pushed to the very edge of the sea by the Carso - the plateau of woods and rocks that rises behind and acts as its ramparts. In winter, the “Bora”, a fierce east-north- east wind, sweeps down from the Carso through the city and out to the Gulf, with gusts sometimes reaching 100mph. As Riccardo Illy, mayor of the city, says, “The Bora is both loved and feared by the Triestini.”

When the Bora has gone, a peculiar stillness settles over Trieste. “I like melancholy places,” Jan Morris tells me, “and Trieste has a special melancholy all of its own, particularly in winter. I like the presence of the sea, the low hills, and when the Bora blows, it leaves behind this strange sense of unfulfilment in the air.”

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that James Joyce wrote his great short story of unfulfilment, “The Dead”, with its marvellous closing image of the whole of Ireland disappearing beneath a blanket of falling snow, during the 11 years that he lived in Trieste; and Rilke wrote the Dunio Elegies when he was living in a village just outside the city. Trieste, you can’t help but feel, inspires that kind of concentrated, melancholic rapture.

But there is another side to Trieste, if you care to look for it, a rougher, more boisterous side as befits a working port. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce has his own name for Trieste - “Europiccola” - a little Europe, and the city through which he moved as an impoverished teacher of languages was certainly alive with the clamour of Italians, Magyars, Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Germans, Austrians, Jews, Armenians, Greeks and Czechs, with the heterogeneous peoples of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Today, the city is quieter, a place of long shadows and sombre piazzas; but it still has a cosmopolitan swagger, with strong Slavic, Teutonic and Latin influences. (The story may be apocryphal, but it is often said that only 10 per cent of the names in the local phone book are Italian, and that more than two-thirds of Triestines have a non-Italian grandparent.)

Architecturally, Trieste has the feel and look of a central European city, with its splendid neoclassical and baroque buildings, most notably the Palazzo Pitteri by Ulderico Moro (1790). Indeed, many of the locals refer to it as their “little Vienna or Budapest”. As a city renowned for religious tolerance, there are some wonderful churches, of all faiths and denominations, my favourites being the neoclassical Catholic church of Sant’ Antonio Nuovo situated at the end of the Grand Canale, and the neo-Byzantine Serb-Orthodox church of S Spirdione, with its pale blue imitation oriental domes and wonderful mosaics by Guiseppe Bertini.

It is only when you are in rare and special places like Trieste, where East meets West, that you begin to understand more fully the conflicts in the Balkans, and how south-east Europe seems forever doomed to be split along the ancient fault line separating Catholic from Orthodox, Rome from Byzantium. It is estimated that as many 6,000 Serbs live in Trieste, and so, perhaps, it’s no surprise to find anti-Nato graffiti, written in English, splattered in yellow paint across walls and buildings. Perhaps it’s wrong to blame the local Serbs: the war was never popular in a city where the population is so ethnically mixed.

That population is an ageing one, so there is none of the youthful exuberance of, say, the Slovene capital of Ljubljana, which is just a 90-minute drive away and has an average age of 25. So you would be foolish to come to Trieste in search of nightlife; in fact, I was in the city three days before I found a decent bar, tucked away in the maze of streets in the old Roman district, with loud music and young people. But even then, the hard dance beat of techno appeared incongruous - how could there be so much life in a city seemingly dedicated to dying?

James Joyce arrived in Trieste in October 1904, leaving in 1915, a period when the labyrinthine Austro-Hungarian empire was unravelling, its disparate peoples inflamed by incipient nationalism. Everyone, it seemed, was in revolt against the long-nurtured assimilationist, multinational ideals of Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria since 1848 and king of Hungary since 1867. Joyce’s Trieste, as revealed by John McCourt in his new book James Joyce: a passionate exile (Orion Media, pounds 16.99) was a cosmopolitan centre of fashion, music and languages, where the Grand Canale was filled with merchant ships unloading their cargo (today, the Canale is occupied only by small fishing boats).

In particular, Joyce was fascinated by the Babel of languages he heard in the streets, and this experience informed his work in fresh and imaginatively unexpected ways. “Later,” McCourt writes, “when writing his own encyclopedia of world culture in Finnegans Wake, Joyce would create an international portmanteau language, rooted in English but brimming with different traditions, in which few individual words could be safely reduced to one single, authoritative meaning. In this respect, the language of Finnegans Wake is like an exaggerated, exploded version of Triestino, that rich, composite dialect which Joyce listened to with rapt attention and learned to speak brilliantly.”

Are the streets of Trieste still raucously Joycean? Not really. Authentic cafe life still exists, where you can eat the mixed Italian, Slavic and Austrian cuisine; but today, above all else, a sense of time past and time passing impresses itself on any visitor, as it does in a similar way in Lisbon, that other ghostly seafaring city more rooted in past than present.

As you walk the streets of Trieste you can sense the quiet resignation of the people. There is no urgency. No one seems to hurry. Why, they even drive slowly in Trieste. And when the sun shines, the old women and men along the seafront don’t so much walk as lumber along, stepping over the lines along which trams once ran, in a period when the city was busier, more purposeful.

Everywhere you look, too, in the splendour of some of the 18th- century buildings, in the rotten jetties of the port and in the faded elegance of the waterfront buildings, you are reminded of something great, of when the city served as an empire’s vibrant port, sending ships out to the Orient.

And everywhere you go, you are never far away from the long melancholy roar of the withdrawing sea. Yet the Triestines seem reluctant to leave their haunted city. Instead, they prefer to stay on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Letter from Scandinavia: The bridge over troubled water

January 31 2000 / New Statesman

In July, Sweden and Denmark will be joined officially for the first time since the ice age with the public opening of a bridge across the Oresund straight that separates the two countries at the gateway to the Baltic Sea. Late last summer, I stood beneath a weak northern sun, buffeted by winds, and watched as Scandinavian royals and a cluster of Nordic dignitaries, who were all wearing hard hats, celebrated the symbolic placing of the final girder of the concrete and steel, cable-stayed bridge connecting Malmo to Copenhagen on the island of Zealand.

The 16-km fixed road-and rail-link between the two countries across the Oresund straight was finally complete at a cost of 18.3 billion DKK after four years of actual construction work and more than a century of tentative discussion. There were popping champagne corks, loud music, high-wire acrobatics on an adjacent floating platform, and, on the clear cold waters below, hundreds of small boats gathered, blowing their horns to herald the arrival of this towering new icon of science and modernity. And then, as Princess Victoria of Sweden and Prince Frederik of Denmark sweetly swapped kisses, a military aircraft flew low overhead, as if to remind us that elsewhere in Europe, not all that far away, Nato warplanes were blowing up bridges across the Danube.

Building bridges, both real and metaphorical, is one of the most commanding of all human fascinations. The way the word “bridge” is used as a signifier of hope (“a bridge to x”, “building bridges”) and of defeat (“a bridge too far”, “burning bridges”) captures something of the problematic ambiguity of the actual physical structures themselves. According to the sociologist Michel de Certeau, any bridge “welds together and opposes insularities. It distinguishes between them and threatens them. It liberates from enclosure and destroys autonomy.” For Martin Heidegger, a bridge creates a presence from absence: it “does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge”. Either way, who can look at the great bridges of the world - at, say, the Brooklyn, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Golden Gate, the Sydney Harbour or the Forth, straddling the Firth of Forth in Scotland like a huge dinosaur - and not think that here are monuments commensurate with our capacity for wonder? Even coming upon an impromptu Bridge - a plank thrown across a river, say - can inspire an odd excitement, a simple desire to walk across it and to explore.

Wordsworth, as he stood on Westminster Bridge, wrote of how “Earth has not anything to show more fair” than the urban sublime laid out there in front of him: the ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples of the hushed early morning city, and “the river gildeth at his own sweet will”. And every great city, as Wordsworth understood, is not complete without its great signature bridges, its points of intersection and connection, its romantic, nature-defying constructions. Small wonder, then, that one of the great novels of the 20th century, Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, is, as the title suggests, about a bridge, the 16th-century structure built by the Turks over the river Drina in eastern Bosnia. This was eventually destroyed by the retreating Austrians during the first world war, and then rebuilt, and its complex history becomes, in Andric’s novel, a microcosm of the troubled history of the Balkans themselves. It would be later destroyed again during the Balkan wars of the Nineties that followed the disintegration of former Yugoslavia.

The Oresund Fixed Link, when it finally opens, will complete an ambitious sequence of bridge-building in Scandinavia. The East Bridge - at 1,624 metres, the second longest suspension bridge in the world - was finished in 1998 and links the islands of Zealand and Funen across the Storebalt (or Great Belt). Two bridges built a decade earlier already connect Funen with the mainland of Jutland. “So now,” my Swedish friend said as we stood together on the newly joined bridge, “we shall be able to drive all the way from the north of Sweden to southern Europe if we want.” How Scandinavian, I thought, to be dreaming, at this moment of union, of flight and of escape. Yet the ideal of the Mediterranean, the ideal of the warm south as a source of romance and sensuous possibility and as a release from cold Lutheran rationalism, has long preoccupied some of the greatest northern European thinkers. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Knut Hamsun, Hans Christian Andersen, Ibsen: they were all ambivalently rooted in, yet longed to escape from, the dark northern landscape that constrained them. They all longed to go south.

The Oresund link is truly a bridge over troubled water. Wars have been fought for control of these seas, not least during the Napoleonic conflicts when the British, inspired by Nelson, defeated the Danish at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, and then again in 1807, after a devastating assault that destroyed much of the city. More recently, it was across the Oresund, in 1943, that almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark fled in small fishing boats to escape the Nazis.

The Oresund link itself, like the Channel Tunnel, is a paradoxical icon of both connection and separation, a focus of cross-border co-operation, local differences, potential economic regeneration and protectionist anxiety. The Oresund, like the Tunnel, has important historical resonance: as Calais was once part of England, so Scania (southern Sweden) once belonged to old Denmark. And as the fear of rabies spreading through the Tunnel has been evoked, again and again, by English xenophobes unsettled by the opening of a fixed link to the Continent, so some Danes have invoked lurid images of the Russian or Baltic mafia launching cross-border raids into Copenhagen and beyond from the Swedish side.

In a powerful sense, then, as the anthropologist Eva Darian-Smith has noted, bridges not only connect a former separation, but also mark new and old divisions; they heighten, in the case of transnational links, differences and similarities, what may be gained and lost. Something like this applies to the Oresund Fixed Link, which is considered to be by some Scandinavians, again in common with the Tunnel, a statement of surrendered sovereignty; the British, it seems, may have their island mythology, but the Scandinavians have their sacred islands.

The Oresund bridge - reducing the traditional ferry journey across the Sound from one hour to ten minutes - is part of a wider process of pan-Scandinavianism and, more generally, of a wider dismantling of national borders in northern Europe. In southern Sweden and in Copenhagen, there is excitement about the supposed opportunities offered by what is already being called the Oresund region - an “integrated region” of buoyant economic activity and business investment, overlapping regional identities, of improved public transport, as well as enhanced cultural, educational and economic links. The rate of unemployment in Malmo, for example, is about 12 per cent, but in Copenhagen, which will soon be no more than a ten-minute car ride away, it has dropped to below 6 per cent. Within a generation, people living on either side of the Sound are expected to be working on one side of the bridge while living on the other.

Leif Pagrotsky, the minister for trade in the Swedish government, told me that the Oresund region “could serve as a model of integration for other countries in northern Europe and indeed as a model of cross-border co-operation in the rest of Europe”. His Danish counterpart, Pia Gjellerup, believes that the region, with its expertise in information technology and biomedicine, is destined to become one of Europe’s leading “knowledge centres”, a region of 5.2 million people and a domestic market equalling Berlin, Hamburg and Amsterdam. Well, she sounded convincing at the time.

The Swedes, at present, are generally more sceptical about such forecasts, and some have even seen the bridge as another violation of Swedish territory by the European Union. “Although the Scandinavian peoples are close, some are fearful of losing their distinct local cultures and identities; there is a concern that Malmo will just become a suburb of Copenhagen,” said Anders Salomonson, an associate professor of ethnology at Lund University.

Despite its renewed enthusiasm for the EU, Sweden is still emerging slowly from decades of guarded isolation and neutrality. For a long time, the Swedes, unlike the Danes who joined the EEC in 1973, were distinctly uneasy about their position in a greater Europe, positioned as they were outside Nato and in uneasy proximity to the Soviet Union.

There was persistent discomfort, perhaps even a lingering sense of shame, about Sweden’s role during the second world war: about its failure to support first Finland and then the occupied Norwegians; its complicity with the Germans in allowing troop movements along its west coast; and its forced deportation after the war of Hitler-supporting Baltic refugees, many in German uniform, to the Soviet Union and to certain death (an event that informed the Nobel-winning novelist Per Olov Enquist’s The Legionaries, published in 1968).

So what of the bridge itself? Well, what prevents it, I think, from becoming a member of the club of great bridges of the world is its failure to extend all the way across the Sound. Because of its proximity to Copenhagen airport and its position at the opening of the Baltic, the bridge terminates at an artificial island more than two-thirds of the way across the Sound, from where the four-lane motorway and dual-track railway links descend into an immersed tunnel.

A bridge stretching all the way across the Oresund would have been one of the engineering wonders of the modern world. It would have been an improbable (and ultimately unworkable) act of daring to compare with, say, the building of the Pont d’ Avignon - the first bridge of ambition of the medieval period to rival the masterpieces of Roman construction - or with the long discussed, but never realised, dream of a Channel bridge to span the entire 21-mile expanse of water between southern England and northern France. As it is, the Oresund Fixed Link - with its pylon towers signifying the highest point of the link, and the border between Denmark and Sweden - is a hugely impressive structure. “I believe in that Nordic functionalism that says things should look like what they are,” says the bridge’s architect, Georg Rothne. “I don’t like too much flamboyance. And I wanted the bridge to be, if not S-shaped, then curved, and for the girders to be black. Bright colours would have faded away; but black is very versatile and can serve as a variety of colours, depending on the light and from where you view the bridge.”

The completion of the bridge offers further testament, if any were needed, of our inexorable movement towards a borderless Europe. Soon, as former France President Francois Mitterand once predicted, “no one country will be able indefinitely to run its economy, its society, its infrastructural development independently from the others”. And soon, too, the people of the Oresund region will wonder how on ever managed without their bridge across the Sound.

Moscow Notebook: the post-Soviet crack-up

January 1 1999 / New Statesman

I am in Moscow to attend the Russian Booker prize dinner, which shares more than a passing resemblance to its British cousin - the shortlist is invariably dismissed, the judges traduced and the future of the Russian novel itself called into question. Established in 1992, the inspiration of Sir Michael Caine, the former chairman of Booker plc, it galvanised the Russian novel at the very moment that the country was slipping wilfully into anarchy. Sir Michael is in Moscow again this year (where he is routinely mistaken for the British Cockney actor of the same name), passing the baton of sponsorial responsibility to the Smirnoff Corporation. The dinner is held at the Maly Manezh art gallery; but we arrive late after our taxi, which the organisers insist we take, becomes caught up in the city’s labyrinthine one-way system. And now the roads are becoming clogged with freshly falling snow, so we abandon the taxi to walk. As I leave the car, it dawns on me exactly where we are: no more than 800 yards from the Metropole Hotel, from where we set off 30 minutes ago. And the gallery? Yep, five minutes’ walk away. Welcome to Russia.

The new Russia is passing through its Weimar phase, and its capital city is an intoxicating and dangerous place where taxes and wages go unpaid, where there is hyperinflation and incipient anti-Semitism, where voracious prostitutes patrol the corridors of the best hotels and designer boutiques flourish, where everyone’s second job is cabbying, and mob rule triumphs. Yet little of this is reflected in the modern novel; there is, I am told, no Gogol or Dostoevsky to document Russia’s contemporary extremity. “Our fiction is in great disgrace at the moment,” complained the publisher Natasha Perova. “No one is doing anything new.” The Booker winner, Someone Else’s Letters by Alexander Morozov, was actually written in the late 1960s and shares the preoccupations of that time; the 1997 winner was set even further back, in the days of Stalinist repression. So how soon, then, is now?

The day before the Booker dinner, I lunch at the British Embassy. The ambassador, Sir Andrew Wood, is a congenial host, but you can see the fatigue in his eyes. The night before, on television, I’d seen the severed heads of the four Granger Telecom engineers, lined up like coconuts on the side of a road in western Chechnya. In captivity, the men had grown thin beards; they were unrecognisable from their pale, optimistic passport photos. “The Chechens are scum, wild beasts,” says a guest at the lunch.

Out on the street, resentment of Caucasians seethes - “blacks” as I often heard them called. The resentment arises partly because many of Moscow’s most ruthless Mafia gangs comprise ethnic Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Chechens, but also because the Caucasus has long held an exotic fascination for metropolitan Russians. Tolstoy’s late novella, Haji Murat, was about a fearless Chechen warrior, who leads resistance to Russian occupation of the Caucasus in the 1850s and who is likened, romantically, by Tolstoy to a thistle that will not die.

Mikhail Lermontov was attracted, too, to the wild mountain landscape of the region; it is where Pechorin, the “superfluous man” of A Hero of our Time, alienated from the sterility of the modern world, finds a kind of release for his restless energies. Would that the engineers had been so lucky.

From an upstairs window of my hotel I look out, at midnight, over the frozen whiteness of Theatre Square, where a frail dog is wandering aimlessly. Since the economic crash in August, the number of dogs abandoned in the city has increased sharply, and the Metro is where many of them end up, sheltering in overheated carriages, or scavenging for food outside stations, where they are joined by beggars dressed in soiled combat fatigues, veterans perhaps from the Afghan and Chechen wars.

“He is abandoned and soon he will die,” the critic Olga Doctorow says of the dog.

“But that’s just typical Russian pessimism,” I say.

“No, realism.”

In search of what Gorky once called the lower depths, we set off on a nightclub tour. Our guide is a young novelist, Katya Sadur, and soon we find ourselves in the Hungry Duck. You pass down a damp, unlit corridor, stinking of piss, to reach the entrance, where you are greeted by doormen dressed as militia and carrying machine guns no less. Inside, the electronic dance music is relentless and the smell of sweat is nauseating. Everyone dances on the bar and on the tables. One day, you feel, there will be an apocalyptic, cleansing fire here.

Later, back at my hotel, I’m approached by a young woman dressed in a thick fur coat. The huge red pillows of her lips are, clearly, collagen-enhanced.

“Would you like to invite me to your room?” she says, in heavily accented English.

“I’m, er, meeting someone for a drink.”

“Well, afterwards then?”

Alone in my room, my eye rest on a passage from Russia in Collapse by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom the previous evening I had seen speak at the opening of his new play, Sharashka: “Where has this cruel tribe of beasts come from, these filthy grabbers claiming for their own the title of New Russians?”

Was the pity all in the poetry?

November 8 1998 / The Sunday Times

When Sebastian Faulks, in the late 1980s, began telling friends that he planned to write a novel about the first world war, many were incredulous.

Who wants to read about that, they seemed to say. Or, as one colleague bluntly put it, when Faulks mentioned that he was accompanying veterans on a trip to the battlefields of the western front: “I couldn’t think of anything more boring.”

The motivation for the writer Geoff Dyer, who began work, in 1992, on The Missing of the Somme, his study of mourning and memory, was the anxiety that such indifference would mean that, once the last of the Great War veterans died, their lives would be forgotten and their memory would “fade with the generation after mine”. Dyer would agree that the struggle for historic truth is the struggle of memory against forgetting, and he wrote of how, almost from the moment it began, the Great War was overlaid by memory, the truth of what actually happened obscured by a literary cult of doomed youth.

Dyer ought not to have worried unduly: now, as we prepare for the 80th anniversary of the armistice of November 11 1918, writing about the first world war has assumed the exaggerated dimension of a publishing “boom”. Far from being forgotten, the Great War, it seems, is in the process of being over-remembered, our response to it overdetermined by revisionism, nostalgia and commercial opportunism. Among new books offering “definitive” readings of the events of 1914-18 are, To the Last Man: Spring 1918 (Viking), Lyn Macdonald’s account of the final, failed German assault on the western front; John Keegan’s First World War (Hutchinson), a magisterial military history drawing historical parallels with other great conflicts; and Niall Ferguson’s revisionist The Pity of War, in which he suggests that the war was “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history” and that the actual “victors” were not the allies but the central powers. There are, too, countless minor works, including Christopher Moore’s slight travelogue, Trench Fever (Little, Brown), in which he ploddingly follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, an infantryman in the Leicestershire Regiment; Vera Brittain’s Letters From a Lost Generation (Little, Brown); the Virago Book of Women and the Great War, and The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War.

Novelists, too, are increasingly preoccupied by the events of 1914 to 1918. There is, most recently, Faulks’s million-selling Birdsong (1993), with its vivid description of trench warfare; In Desolate Heaven, Robert Edric’s study of shell shock; and Pat Barker’s Booker-winning Regeneration trilogy, in which she not so much follows the combatants into the trenches of the Somme and Passchendaele as, through the central character of W H R Rivers, a medical psychiatrist, attempts an imaginative reconstruction of the psychological aftershock of 1918, drawing onthe actual experience of figures such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

What we are witnessing here is something more than a literary fad -it is nothing less than what Stephen Wraysford, the young narrator of Birdsong, calls the “long perspective of forgiveness”, a process through which the past is reclaimed by later generations and the act of remembering becomes as important as what is being remembered. And the 80th anniversary of the armistice is the last significant anniversary in which anyone with direct experience of the Great War will play any part.

There is a problem, however. The first world war is a peculiarly, perhaps uniquely, literary war. The poems of Rupert Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and others are among the first most of us ever read as schoolchildren. The power of these moving, often homoerotic poems, written by an educated, sophisticated young men steeped in the classics and from a largely upper-middle-class background, means that the experience of hundreds of thousands of ordinary soldiers, most of whom rose from impoverished backgrounds without the miraculous gift of literary language and left behind no poems or diaries, has passed unacknowledged. As a result, these poems have helped to frame a popular conception of the Great War as one continuous, remorseless exhibition of atrocity: the Battle of the Somme amplified over four long, desolate years. The popular view of those who took part, too, is of innocent martyrs, young men with “froth-corrupted lungs” led to their slaughter by a blimpish military elite.

Other artistic media have played their part too. The shattered war landscapes of the painter Paul Nash, who enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in 1914 and whose representations of combat in paintings such as The Ypres Salient at Night and The Menin Road have an experimental vigour so often absent from the Georgian traditionalism of the poets; the several Hollywood films of German Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps the greatest novel to emerge directly from the war; the play Oh! What a Lovely War, which was such a countercultural success in the Sixties, and the celebrated and elegiac last episode of the television comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, with its remorseless hostility to Field Marshal Haig and the entire military elite - all these have contributed, as Niall Ferguson puts it, to “the persistence of the idea” that the war was an evil thing. Yet, as Lyn Macdonald told me as we toured the northern battlefields of the western front together recently, the truth is darker and more complicated. It is perhaps even, though she did not say so, closer to Ferguson’s contention that many soldiers actually enjoyed fighting.

I recently chaired a discussion on the first world war between Macdonald and Faulks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. The festival programme confidently stated that we would be talking about literary representations of the “horror” of war. But as Macdonald - who has spent the past two decades recording thousands of hours of interviews with veterans - told her audience, “horror” is too glib an appraisal. In fact, horror is the one word she has seldom heard any veteran use. Rather, they talk about the boredom of combat, of the long periods of inactivity broken by sudden and abrupt skirmishes, and even of the “adventure” of battle. In To the Last Man, one veteran, a wire-cutter, describes how he relished going out on night patrols into no man’s land because at least, after weeks of indolent frustration, he was contributing something - anything - to the war effort.

“I have nothing against the war poets,” Macdonald explained. “By definition, their work distils the war to the essence of drama. But they focus on terrible events at the expense of the whole truth. What has to be remembered is that most of our soldiers were volunteers; they believed in their country and in the empire. They thought that these things were threatened. They were caught up in the adventure of the experience. Every veteran I have ever interviewed I have asked the same question: ‘Would you do it again?’ And not one has said no. You see, they thought it was the right thing to do. And we did win, of course. Only recently has it been made to look like a pyrrhic victory.”

She is surely right. Yet who would deny that the Great War represented a terminus: the end of Victorian optimism and the beginning of what we now call modernity, a harder, technologised age of mass communication and industrial slaughter, an age in which we hurried towards a second war without ever allowing ourselves time enough properly to understand what had contributed to the the first. The Great War, as Keegan says, “damaged civilisation, the rational and liberal civilisation of the European enlightenment, permanently for the worse”. It marked the beginning of the end of the hegemony of European imperialism, too.

It is a sense of something irretrievably lost, rather than of something won, of the Great War as a narrative of catastrophe, not a noble cauuse, that continues to absorb the popular imagination. Dick Diver, the doctor-hero of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), understands this when, on a journey to the battlefields in northern France, he says: “This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time…This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes…All my beautiful, lovely, safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high-explosive love.”

One cold afternoon, two weeks ago, I walked among the bleached gravestones of the British war dead at the Gouzeaucourt cemetery, behind Gauche Wood, where the South African Scottish fought a valiant rearguard. The ordered tranquillity of the cemetery was so much like an arcadian English garden. As the wind got up across open scrubland, I was surprised by how easily I surrendered to popular convention and allowed my response to what had happened here once more to be prescribed by the poets and by Edmund Blunden in particular. Reflecting on the experience of the western front he had written that “here was peculiar grace”. Nothing, I realised then, and certainly no amount of revisionist interpretation, could ever erase such peculiar grace, nor, it seems, prevent the Great War from floating free of its historical moorings and drifting out into the clear blue sea of unreliable memory.

When will Russia find a new Tolstoy?

December 11 1997 / The Times

The old, grey Muscovite, breathless after battling through a scrum of photographers, fumbles for words as he peers down from the podium at the cultural crowd eating marinated salmon in the Maly Manezh art gallery.

Anatoli Azolsky, 67, has just won the 1997 Russian Booker Prize, and he appears humbly flummoxed by his success. The hard lights of nine television stations dazzle him; he clutches his $12,500 (Pounds 7,800) prize cheque (three years’ wages for the ordinary Russian) like a vulnerable child holding his mother’s hand.

Tomorrow Azolsky will be caught up in the kind of spat that is now so much part of the Moscow literary scene. But tonight is his, the culmination of a long journey that began in his years of internal exile under Stalin, years when he wrote without any hope of being published - “writing to the table”, the Russians call it.

Whether this former factory worker was an appropriate symbol of the new literary Russia was a different matter. “Why did he win?” asked the critic and poet Helena Riumina. “This little, white-haired Soviet man with a grey face seems to come from Brezhnev’s time. When he speaks, I hear the old style of a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. His phrases are wooden; he doesn’t have his own language.”

That his novel The Cage , a metaphysical thriller about a freethinking scientist’s attempt to forge an autonomous identity, was set under the shadow of Stalinist terror inspired disappointment. At the press conference, I overheard one judge say: “When I hear Azolsky speak, I regret award ing him the prize. He is a man of the past.”

This was an eventful year for the Russian Booker. The shortlist was traduced, the judges mocked, the winner ridiculed and the future of fiction itself questioned. If all this has a ring of familiarity, it should: the 1997 Russian Booker shared more than a family resemblance to its British cousin. Why, it even had its own Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, a virtuoso stylist called Viktor Pelevin, considered to be the outstanding writer of his generation (he is in his late thirties) but who, it seems, is destined to remain out of favour with Booker juries.

The exclusion of Chapaev and Emptiness , Pelevin’s novel about a hero of the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, enraged everyone except the judges. The critic Konstantin Kedrov captured the mood when he said: “It looks like there are two different talents here: to be a jury member and to be an expert on literature.”

The Russian Booker Prize is in its seventh year. Set up by Sir Michael Caine, then chairman of Booker plc, in association with the British Council, its effect on contemporary Russian literary culture can not be overestimated. It has galvanised the Russian novel at a time when increasing numbers of people are turning away from fiction, preferring to read newspapers, magazines and historical narratives.

“During the Soviet days you would go on the Metro and everyone would be reading books; but now it’s all glossy magazines,” complains Igor Shaitanov, a literature professor at Moscow University and chairman of the 1997 judges.

Professor Shaitanov is dismissive of those cultural pessimists who say that the Russian novel is doomed never to recapture its past grandeur, but he concedes that something has been lost in the rush to embrace capitalism. “We are living in a time of wilful anarchy; freedom has overwhelmed us. When we had the underground and people were writing against the system, writers had a point of focus.”

The problem is compounded by the chaotic state of publishing and the prevailing threat of mafia terror. In August Aleksandr Krutik, 29, a publisher of school textbooks, was assassinated outside his Moscow apartment. His company publishes at least 30 per cent of all school and college textbooks. It is a lucrative market since Russian schools urgently require material untainted by the Soviet past. The criminal underworld of contemporary Moscow, a kind of Wild West of unfettered markets and cruel disparities in wealth, is naturally eager to control educational publishing.

Most novels are published in so-called “thick journals” - cultural magazines such as Novy Mir and Znamya - recalling in style, if not in content, the great literary periodicals of the 19th century. But even these are losing readers.

When the Booker was established, the nominators could scarcely find enough novels to form a long list; this year nine of the 42 entries were published as finished books. So there is progress.

The success of the Russian Booker has inspired imitators, most notably the Little Booker Prize, which honours philosophical essays and works of criticism; the waggish Anti-Booker Prize, set up by Boris Berezovsky, a media entrepreneur; and the Solzhenitsyn Prize, supported by the self-styled saviour of the Slavic people himself.

But, as the critic Lyudmila Lantsova points out: “The Booker will continue to overshadow all other prizes…because it takes skill to make people wait and talk and to create hype around the shortlisted candidates.”

Skill and luck. For always running below the surface of the Russian Booker is a current of confusion. The awards dinner was a model of organised chaos; many more guests arrived than had been expected, and additional tables had to be swiftly laid. The resulting delay was softened by a steady flow of vodka and champagne, provided by co-sponsors Smirnov, and by memorable moments of cultural confusion: Vladimir Smirnov and Jonathan Taylor, the chairman of Booker plc, attempting to have a conversation when neither spoke the other’s language; the delay in proceedings, like an echo on an international phone call, as every public pronouncement had to be translated (or mistranslated); the frisson of excitment when Sir Michael was mistaken for the British actor of the same name.

Best of all was the moment when Sir Michael was asked by a Russian television interviewer to name three “interesting contemporary Russian novelists”. In a deep, resounding voice, he answered: “Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and…” He paused theatrically, drawing on his constant cigarette. Jonathan Taylor helpfully whispered: “What about Pushkin?” But Sir Michael would have none of it.

“No,” he continued, “Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol.”

“Yes,” said the interviewer, “but what about contemporary Russia?”

“I’m sorry,” boomed Sir Michael. “I can’t help you there.”

There is something of the grand Victorian patriarch about Michael Caine. Tall and intimidatingly vigorous, he has a a mischievous sense of humour and the kind of stutter that was once likened to the sound of a battered Morris Oxford refusing to start on a cold February morning.

Without his stubborn determination, the Russian Booker would not exist. Yet Sir Michael is over 70 and “his” prize may eventually have to break free from foreign influence, becoming fully Russian. Sir Michael almost conceded as much in his short speech at the award dinner: “The boat is fully launched and ready to go out alone into the heavy, wild seas of fiction.”

All that is missing is a modern Dostoevsky to document Russia’s contemporary extremity.

Journey to the end of the night

February 1997 / Prospect, Issue 16

In George Steiner’s novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A H, a team of Nazi hunters discovers an aged Adolf Hitler living in exile in a Peruvian jungle. Despite longing to kill him, they offer Hitler the chance to defend himself. His words are reckless, defiant. He taunts them: “I am an old man. My voice tires… You have made of me some kind of mad devil, the quintessence of evil, hell embodied. When I was, in truth, only a man of my time. Oh, inspired, I grant you… with a nose for the supreme political possibility. A master of human moods, perhaps, but a man of my time.”

In October 1996, at a quiet ceremony at the headquarters of the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Francis Stuart, another old man with a tiring voice, shuffled up to the Irish president, Mary Robinson, stooping low as she placed a gold torque around his neck. The event marked Stuart’s election to the office of Saoi of the Aosd*(r)¡ (wise man of the tribe), an honour bestowed on only three other living Irish writers. The ceremony, for a man who once saw Hitler as “a kind of contemporary Samson,” passed in a haze of congratulation; Stuart received his admirers congenially, including his perpetual champion, Anthony Cronin, a critic who considers Stuart’s autobiographical Black List, Section H to be, after Ulysses, the greatest Irish novel of the 20th century. But once Stuart had returned home, the whisperings against him began. For like Steiner’s Hitler, Stuart was a man of his time-terrifyingly so. Many of his compatriots have never forgiven his decision to live in Berlin during the second world war, from where he broadcast to Dublin and wrote scripts for William Joyce, the notorious “Lord Haw Haw.”

Born in Australia in 1902 of Ulster stock, Stuart lives alone in a small, shadowy bungalow in Dundrum, south Dublin. At 94 and despite his recent honour, he still feels ostracised in his own country. Like Jean Genet, whom he reveres, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with whom he has been compared, Stuart knows the anguish of incarceration and the loneliness of the political extremist. Most of his 18 novels are out of print, yet the best of them-The Pillar of Cloud and Redemption-are complex studies in sacrifice and suffering. His fiction remains neglected-most publishers being unable to separate the darkness of the life from the radiance of the work.

Black List, Section H (Lilliput) recounts the story of Stuart’s own life, from his early and unhappy marriage to Maude Gonne’s daughter Iseult and his fighting with the Republicans in the Irish civil war, to his later exile in London and Berlin. It ends with his internment by the victorious allies, though he was convicted of no crime. In a characteristic comment, Stuart writes: “What’s so horrible is to live by established categories.” The cry of the man who chooses to journey beyond traditional moral absolutes in pursuit of a savage freedom.

One of Stuart’s critics is the writer Kevin Myers, who condemns the older writer’s unwillingness to defend or excuse his activities. Stuart is convinced that he did no wrong-that the world has unjustly caged him in its hostility. Myers feels that such sentiments are unjustified. “Stuart voluntarily sided with the most bestial regime in the history of civilisation,” he says. “What’s worse, he has remained unapologetic about it. His decision to stay in Nazi Germany should affect all evaluations of him for the rest of his life, even artistic ones. Otherwise we are treating art in a frivolous way. Beckett was in Paris and joined the Resistance. Stuart, a free man, chose to stay in Berlin and make these broadcasts. As a young man he was part of the Republican movement, so he was no ingé(r)µe.”

In defence of Stuart, Ulick O’Connor, the author, playwright and fellow Aosd*(r)¡ member, suggests that what matters in literature is not how you act or what you believe in, but whether you can write well. The imagination is sacrosanct, the word supreme. “Jean Genet, a great writer, was also a murderer who spent time in prison,” O’Connor says. “Stuart went to Berlin and made some literary broadcasts. And why not? He was a neutral Irishman.”

Transcripts of Stuart’s broadcasts, although hard to find, do exist and have been read by his biographer, Geoffrey Elborn. They reveal his commitment not only to Irish self-determination but to the German war effort. After the Battle of Stalingrad, he said: “If I were a German I would be proud to belong to a nation which could produce such men. As it is, I am glad to be among them…”; and again: “Today I spoke of Liam Lynch and Cathal Brugha, of Yeats and Synge and Pearse, for a nation’s soul is revealed in its poets and soldiers. I would refer again to Stalingrad. The Irish would understand what the German people felt. This has moved Germany more than any other event of the war, for while such victories as the fall of Paris might be attributed to the perfection of the German war machine, this is the triumph of flesh and blood.”

Stuart’s journey to the end of the night is shocking but raises complex questions about connections between great creative gifts and certain kinds of political or ideological damnation. Last summer I tried to explore some of these questions with him. I visited Stuart in his bungalow in Dundrum, and found myself unexpectedly invited to a party held in his honour. A tall, straight-backed man and preternaturally pale, he was impressively alert and articulate. There was nothing vulnerable about him. At ease among his small group of friends-the ubiquitous Cronin, his publisher Anthony Farrell, Finola Graham, the wife from whom he lives apart- he seemed reluctant, at first, to discuss his past. The following morning, though, he was more open about the five and a half years he spent in Germany. Stuart told me he left Ireland not only because he had received an invitation to teach at Berlin University, but because he was attracted to the messianic zeal of Hitler, with its pristine uniforms and cleansing oratory. He travelled across Europe on a false medical certificate, arriving in Berlin in January 1940.

“I saw Hitler…” Stuart began, then turned away, leaving his sentence hanging. There was a short, uncomfortable silence before he continued, adding a parenthetical clause: “I saw Hitler-wrongly as it turned out-as a kind of contemporary Samson. I hated the whole political and social setup in western Europe, but especially what was happening in England and Ireland, and I thought Hitler was in a position to tear it all down. Of course, as soon as I went to Germany I saw that I was wrong. Hitler was a great disappointment to me.”

Asked about writing for Lord Haw Haw and his own broadcasts, he said: “The speeches I wrote for Joyce were all about British atrocities in Ireland. I have written about half a million words in my life and not one sentence has been anti-Semitic. People call me a fascist. But fascists have one-track minds, whatever you say about my mind it is not one-track.

“Another reason why I stayed in Germany is that the sort of writer I am should always be at the heart of what’s going on. I am an ostracised writer, writing for other lonely, ostracised people. For this reason, if for no other, I saw no reason to leave Berlin, especially as I am apolitical and adhere to no fixed moral position. I don’t regret what I did because it made me the writer I am. The only way I can write is by operating outside society.”

Stuart may claim never to have written an anti-Semitic word, but the two writers about whom he spoke that morning with hushed respect, Jean Genet and Martin Heidegger, are remembered for their hostility to Jews. Fascinated by Genet’s life of crime and existential rebellion, Stuart praised the Frenchman’s decision to move to Palestine during the last years of his life, as if such an act, with its implicit anti-Zionism, merited a badge of honour. He described Heidegger, a supporter of National Socialism, as a “modern prophet of the greatest stature.” In passing, he added: “George Steiner-another Jew, as you know-wrote a book about Heidegger that influenced me deeply.”

When I told George Steiner about my conversation with Stuart, he expressed admiration for his work but was troubled by the life. For much of his career, Steiner has meditated obsessively on questions concerning the links between tyranny and creativity, as well as the shadow the Holocaust has cast over European culture. So what of those midnight creatures who flourished as the lights were extinguished in central Europe? Steiner was unequivocal: “I have always felt strongly that it is not our business to condemn writers like Stuart who combine enormous talent with unacceptable politics. And Stuart does have enormous talent: assessing him purely as a writer, I can say that it is with people like Knut Hamsun and Céline that he belongs-that’s mighty big company but very unpleasant. What unites these writers is that they are unafraid, very solitary, and go only their own way. I know very little about Stuart’s activities in Berlin, but I am sure he was not a great help to the Nazis.”

The comparison with the Norwegian Knut Hamsun is instructive. Like Stuart (and Céline), Hamsun is a writer of extremes, whose hatred for democracy and disgust at what he called the “average man” and “the mob” led him to embrace Nazism as an ideology of purity and apocalypse; in 1943, he was notoriously photographed shaking hands with Hitler, whom Hamsun described as a reforming nature of the highest order, believing that the FÜhrer would usher in a “rich golden age of culture” (the photograph was a mirror into which the Norwegian people peered with shame). The compliment was obliquely repaid: Goebbels praised Hamsun’s fiction for the way in which it transcended “good and evil.”

Like Stuart, Hamsun writes of lonely, ostracised figures, fanatics of perpetual indignation for whom social intercourse is a tiresome impossibility and suicide remains a constant preoccupation. Like Stuart, Hamsun’s fiction can be melodramatic, marred by whimsy and a simple-minded mysticism; his late novels, such as Growth of the Soil, and Vagabonds, extol the virtues of intuition over reason. For Hamsun, as for DH Lawrence, the conscious life is no more than a masquerade of death-he locates the self in a biological source, dependent on natural, organic rhythms.

Knut Hamsun was born on 4th August 1859, in Gudbrandsdalen, the son of a poor farmer and tailor. When he was 20, Hamsun went to live in Kristiania (now Oslo), where he devoured literature with an autodidact’s determination. He struggled for more than a decade before eventually finding a publisher for his first (and greatest) novel, Hunger.

Morbidly introspective and isolated, although utterly convinced of his talent, he started work on Hunger in a cold attic room “only three feet from the moon.” After a period as a labourer he went to the US, where he continued to work on his novel. The newness and vibrancy of American speech, with its swaggering rhythms and wised-up exaggerations, may account for some of the remarkable vitality of Hamsun’s style. For a book written in 1889 Hunger feels astoundingly modern. Just how modern can be gleaned from a superb new translation by Sverre Lynstad, which has just been published by Rebel Inc, an imprint of the enterprising Edinburgh independent, Canongate Books. The magisterial omnipotence and long, self-savouring sentences of the traditional 19th century novel are rejected in favour of a dense, fragmented interior monologue. The language is rough, colloquial, coarse. With its streaming syntax, conflation of time sequence and impressionistic style, Hunger anticipates many of the experiments of the modernist novel. Indeed it is a modernist novel. “The whole modern school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hunger,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer. Its antecedents are apparent: Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with its bored hero, the murderous student-dreamer Raskolnikov; Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (1840); Turgenev’s disenchanted anarchists; Gogol; German Romantic philosophy.

To the contemporary reader, familiar with almost a century of ironic, confessional first-person narrators, Hunger seems entirely familiar: but to late 19th century readers it must have seemed like nothing they had read before. A study in urban alienation, it is narrated by an irrational, tyrannical Hamsun-like figure wandering through Kristiania like a ghost. The young unnamed narrator moves among the masses from whom he has cut himself off, stumbling into newspaper offices in an attempt to sell his articles to startled, although benign, editors. The starving writer may be demanding, cruel and spiteful, but he is equally capable of compassion and a thousand little kindnesses. Though destitute, he frequently gives away what little money he has. It is difficult not to be moved by the starving writer’s plight, or delighted by his wild misanthropy.

At the end of the novel we see the narrator-his dream of writing unrealised-boarding a ship bound for England, yet we are not crushed by his defeat. The closing paragraph seeks to discover abundance in loss, by locating happiness in the search for glory rather than in its realisation. The young writer will return, as Hamsun himself eventually did, to claim the Nobel prize for literature.

The same mingling of isolation and compassion can be found in Céline, whose thrillingly nihilistic Journey to the End of the Night is one of the great novels of the century. Yet whereas, say, Stuart’s effectiveness as a Nazi propagandist remains obscure, Céline was a help to the Nazis. Born in 1894 of a lowly Parisian family, Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (Céline was a pseudonym) had a brutal childhood. Poor, dysfunctional but restlessly ambitious, he longed to escape from all that constrained him. He eventually found a kind of release in the trenches of the western front, where he was seriously injured and decorated. Journey contains descriptions of the carnage of war that few novels, not even Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, have matched. After the war, Céline qualified as a doctor, travelled in Africa and America, before returning to Paris to practise in a workers’ clinic.

Published in 1934, Journey follows the hero-narrator, Ferdinand, as he travels from the “fiery furnace” of the western front to the jungles of central Africa, and from New York to the crumbling tenements of Paris, where he works as a doctor among the forgotten and dispossessed. Céline immerses the reader in a torrential flow of language. His delight in obscenity and his prose, shocking and raw, is hard to forget; his metaphors astonish. Céline writes of suffering, debased lives and crushing poverty with ecstatic intensity. His vision of humanity in the grasp of its own weakness is utterly cynical. With fiendish application he leads his characters to the edge of the abyss, then pushes them over. As they fall we hear only the sad echo of their voices-and Céline’s wild laughter.

Céline’s indefatigable rage eventually propelled him into the arms of the Nazis. As a collaborator who fled France at the Liberation and followed the Vichy government to Germany, he wrote vitriolic and anti-Semitic pamphlets and articles before and during the second world war, including this sentence: “It [Hitler’s anti-Semitism] is the side of Hitler that most people like the least… it is the side I like the most.” His biographer, Maurice Bardeche, asks: “What kind of writer is he, who does not accept responsibility for what he has written, when what he has written has led others to their death?” Yet, reading Céline’s preface to the 1952 Gallimard edition of Journey, it seems clear that, on the contrary, he did accept responsibility for his actions. By this time, he had returned to France, where he was once again working as a doctor among the urban poor. His preface reveals a deep sense of mourning and regret, although it is expressed in the near-frenzy recognisable from the novels and pamphlets. Clearly, the price paid for setting himself apart from all external control was too great; he had suffered too much. “So, they’re putting Journey on the rails again,” Céline writes. “If I weren’t under so much pressure, forced to earn my living, I can tell you right now, I’d suppress the whole thing, I wouldn’t let a single line through… I’ve been the cause of too much evil. Just think of all the deaths, the hatreds around me, the treachery, the sewer it adds up to, the monsters.”

Milan Kundera defending Céline in Testaments Betrayed says that what matters to the ostracised writer is sensation, the feeling that he exists, even though in distress. Stuart wrote to affirm his solitude, and owes his best work to his role as an outcast. He would agree with Hume that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” That his search for sensation took him to Germany at the moment of its supreme disgrace matters less to him than that he made the journey.

Our journey as readers, in contrast, is empty of certainty. For although all attempts at aesthetic evaluation necessarily slide into the political, to judge a writer’s work by his often unsavoury life is to do violence to that work. If we follow the logic of Myers’ argument Stuart, Céline, Hamsun or any other creative monster is literally unreadable. His life is a blanket smothering his art. On the other hand to view the novel as a hermetically sealed object, as Kundera appears to do, is to strip it of the clothes of context and historical resonance. O’Connor’s and even Steiner’s equivocations concerning Stuart’s ultimate collusion with atrocity expose the disconcerting truth that aesthetic evaluation never wriggles completely free of politics: Steiner feels obliged to suggest that “Stuart was not a help to the Nazis,” while O’Connor mutters about Irish neutrality.

The source of Stuart’s rebellion might have been pure but he nevertheless ended up, as Céline and Hamsun did before him, peering blindly into the abyss. Yet, what each writer, in his willingness to blame only himself and endure the consequences, seems finally to have understood as he languished in prison in post-Nazi disgrace, is that if civil society is to survive, self-realisation cannot be the supreme principle. These writers’ chaotic, disordered lives remind us, to echo the poet Andrew Motion, of a painful general truth: that the beautiful flower of art grows, on a long stalk, out of some very mucky stuff.