As I wait at the
Redditch train station, I’m tempted to pinch myself. One of the greatest
writers in the world is about to pick me up and host me for lunch at the
country cottage into which he and his wife have recently moved.
Jim Crace carries his accolades lightly. When I met him for the first time, in Madras, he was more excited about a bird-watching expedition in Mahabalipuram than the success of his latest novel, Harvest.
He loves joking at his own expense. His books are as tender as they are satirical. The ironies of life, small and large, find a place in them. The enormous pride people feel at having sacrificed something, at their own humility, is explored with subtlety. The paranoia of people, their foolishness, their temptations, their cruelty, all find sympathy and empathy.
When Crace’s observations move into Craceland, the decline of the English car industry acquires a parallel in the Bronze Age. A service station at a railway junction becomes the inspiration for a novel about the transition from crop farming to sheep farming in mediaeval Britain.
As I sat down to lunch with a writer—whose work had broadened my idea of what literature could be and do—I wondered how I was to interview him. This is a man who commands so much respect that the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was fooled by his description of a fictional insect, into thinking the sprayhopper did exist. This is a man who worries that the people working on home improvements to his cottage have gone too long without tea. This is also a man who tells me he was awed when John Updike asked to speak to him, 10 years ago, and is embarrassed when I respond with, “So, can you begin to imagine how I feel right now?”
As it happens, it’s most fun playing the devil’s advocate with him, because that means listening to why he didn’t do something, rather than why he did.
In your novels,
there’s a strange combination of conspiracy and coincidence. It’s almost as if
nature, or the cosmos, is conspiring to bring about events. Would you agree
that with most of them—whether it’s Being Dead, Harvest or Quarantine—there’s
a constant sense of ‘if only that hadn’t happened’?
Well, my books are very schematic, and patterned, and look very planned even though the writing of them is intuitive. And that’s because I’m not part of the realist tradition. The realist tradition holds up a mirror to a real world, as I keep saying. It goes, ‘This is Redditch. It smells like this. It tastes like this. It looks like this.’ And anyone who knows Redditch will say, ‘That’s correct, in its every detail. How clever of that writer to dish out the true version of this place that we know.’
And the realist tradition also wants to convince you that plot developments are likely, and not unlikely. And therefore, when we’re watching a detective programme on the television, which attempts to be realistic, and it turns out that by chance, the detective happened to turn up at the house where the murderer happened to live, you think we’re being cheated by the coincidence trick.
But that doesn’t apply in the kind of fiction that I write, which is not realistic. It’s traditional fiction, in which patterns are provided in order to shed light on human experience.
If you see a European landscape painted by Constable, you expect a true version of the real world, and that’s the genius of Constable: you expect the sky and the clouds to be a perfect rendering of that actual day. If you saw the same landscape painted by Paul Klee, for example, then that is not what you’d expect. You’d expect patterns, and you’d expect distortions, and you’d expect interpretations, and you’d expect something much more schematic.
And one of those ways of portraying the world is no greater or better than the other. It’s just that they deliver their truth in different forms. So, with my books, I’m not in the least embarrassed about the fact that the plot is very schematic. I’m not in the least embarrassed by the fact that all the characters are archetypal. And I’m not embarrassed by the fact that the plots are full of coincidence. Because the whole point of my books is that everything is shaped to make the points they want to make.
In Harvest, for example, the woman has got a shawl. That shawl is not there just as a token, or because women wear shawls. That shawl is an important metaphor of womanhood, of luxury, as a signifier that she is living beyond her station. It has a purpose, in a way that things can have a purpose in literature, but can’t have such a clear purpose in life.
You say your
characters are archetypal, and you say your novels are schematic, but they
don’t seem that way to me as a reader. Because when I think of my life, and the
lives that I know, a lot of them are shaped entirely be a series of
coincidences. And what happens in Harvest seems entirely
plausible to me.
But the difference is one of self-consciousness. The realist writer, if he or she is going to have a plot twist based on coincidence, is going to feel very self-conscious about it. And they’re going to try and obfuscate it. They realise the plot needs this coincidence, but they’ve got to make it look natural. So, that’s one approach.
I approach the same problem from a different side. I’m not in the least made uncomfortable by coincidence. But the reason that it is not difficult for my readers is that the way I’m good at telling lies is that I do so in a naturalistic way. So, for example, if I invent an animal that doesn’t exist, I will talk about it in a voice which sounds completely natural, so that you will believe it does...
Yes, the sprayhopper
comes to mind.
The sprayhopper, exactly! Whereas if you were to look at traditional storytelling, and you were to look at the Minotaur legend, the Minotaur is always talked about in mythological terms, as if it not a real thing, as if everybody knows, and the writer wants you to know, that this is an invention, and it’s there to stand for the pressures that exist on society.
So, it’s just my method of telling lies which is a realistic method. I look you straight in the eye, and I talk as if everything I say is true. Sometimes, when I’m telling you something which is true, I will look a little bit embarrassed, as if I’m making it up.
So, it’s just a game I play, you know, because after all, you’ve got to play games. The writing life isn’t dramatic or exciting. If you’re not entertaining yourself, and you’re not amusing yourself, it’s the worst job in the world.
Plus, on top of that, the world you’re creating is bound to be more interesting than your own life. You’re sitting typing away in your own life, you feel quite well, your marriage isn’t ending, you’re not about to die, there’s no war going on, there’s no famine, no one’s arguing.
It’s one person, alone, in front of a blank sheet of paper, or in front of a blank computer screen, day after day. That’s not sexy. The life outside, the actual life you’re not living, while you’re in that room, is much more exciting. What you’re going to do that night, what you’re going to do on your day off at the weekend, that’s where the drama happens.
Plus, on top of that, the world you’re creating is bound to be more interesting than your own life. You’re sitting typing away in your own life, you feel quite well, your marriage isn’t ending, you’re not about to die, there’s no war going on, there’s no famine, no one’s arguing. But the thing that you’re typing is about death, and it’s about marriages falling apart, it’s about war not peace, it’s about illness, it’s about the stars falling out of the sky.
But you’re lying when
you say it’s a dull life, aren’t you? Because there’s also something incredibly
privileged about a writer’s relationship with his or her work. It’s a world
into which no one can enter. It’s like having a mistress and everyone’s
envious, but no one can say anything about it.
That’s true, but it’s only because of the liberties I do take. It’s only because when I invent the sprayhopper, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. But there’s a certain mischievousness in believing some people will be fooled. You know, it was a glorious moment for me when a film director, who was going to make a film about Being Dead, phoned me and said he had been going to film it in New Zealand, but he couldn’t. He said, ‘We’re going to do it in the Isle of Man in England instead. Still, never mind, I don’t suppose there are any sprayhoppers in New Zealand.’ He thought that there will be no sprayhoppers in New Zealand because he presumed it was an English creature. And I said to him, ‘Well, there are no sprayhoppers anywhere in the world.’
It meant that something I had invented had become sort of real. I like that in a playful sense, but also, it does remind me of the power of narrative, and the fact that we are disposed to believe stories. And we’re not disposed to believe stories because we’re fools, as human beings. We’re disposed to believe stories because we know that if we believe them, we will get something from them. That we will get wisdom from them, and that we will get comfort from them, and that we will get amusement from them, and much more. Literature gives a hell of a lot. And I’d also say, literature isn’t the only way to get transcendence in this world—cooking also does that, and theatre does that, and gardening does that.
The important thing is that every human life should have some kind of transcendence. That’s what you want for people, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be reading. It can be sport, cooking, knitting, making carpets, being a good conversationalist, playing a musical instrument ... are you bored, should I stop?
No, I wasn’t! I was
just thinking about it, and it’s fascinating, for someone who’s weaving this
carpet, here, for instance, to see this design as he wove ... I’m sure at some
point, it acquired a life of his own, and the creator became a spectator.
Yeah. Yeah. And I pay a lot of attention to that in all of my books. There is a lot of craft in my books. As in, womanly craft. In Quarantine, one of the major scenes, and an ongoing scene, is this woman making a birthmat. The whole idea of fabric, it’s there in all my novels. The womanly expertise you get with the shawl in Harvest, for instance. And I keep thinking to myself, you don’t find many writers in my books. Are there any writers in my books?
There’s Felix Mondazy.
Oh, yeah, Mondazy, the poet-writer, of course.
And he’s so real. When
I read Being Dead, and you’ve ‘quoted’ Mondazy about how Fish
claims lives, I wanted to read that imaginary book he had written, because it
was so beautiful. And then I discovered you had invented him.
I think I might bring him back in the next book, in some form. (Laughs)
Do you want to hear about what happened in India that made me want to write another book? And I should be very careful saying this, because I’m not quite sure what I think about it and it’s quite a dodgy thing what I’m about to say, in feminist terms, in a woman’s terms.
But while we were in India, a Danish student was raped, in a completely horrible, brutal way. Of course, we’d heard about the famous case of the woman who was attacked on the bus, where the brutality went massively beyond the sex act.
And all of these things fill you with a pessimism about humankind, particularly about male humankind, from which it is hard to recover. Because for me, the essence of everything I do, and everything that I believe in, and everything in my books and everything in my nature as a human being is that I’m optimistic about humankind. Evidence of that kind of rape is quite a blow, from which it is hard to recover, and which I can’t quite make sense of, because it shows a kind of unalloyed evil and wickedness in my fellow creatures.
This is not an Indian story I’m telling now. It’s just that this incident occurred when we were in India, and I got thinking about it. I couldn’t make sense of it. We heard later that three or four young men were arrested for this crime. I forget exactly what the newspapers said, but they were clearly hooligans from the street—poor, beggar- type people. It still seemed awful. It seems appalling that anyone could behave like that.
And then, when we were up in Rajasthan, I saw again and again and again what the term ‘street people’ meant. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not a criticism of India, this is just from observing things on the street. There are families living on the street, under a piece of tarpaulin the size of your back—a family of five, maybe with a charcoal fire, filthy sarees on the women, kids the age of my grandchild, 15-16 months old, in abject poverty.
And you knew, when you looked at those people, that the kind of lives they were born into, and that they were going to be forced to live, nothing they achieve for the rest of their lives, whether it was heat, or food, or shelter, or a job, or love, or sex, would ever be achieved without their either begging for it, or stealing it.
That abject level of poverty was never going to give them the kind of sensibility where it was reasonable to expect them to be kind to anybody, because they would have learned with their mother’s milk – if their mother had had any milk – that nothing was available to them except through violence, theft or begging.
That abject level of poverty was never going to give them the kind of sensibility where it was reasonable to expect them to be kind to anybody, because they would have learned with their mother’s milk – if their mother had had any milk – that nothing was available to them except through violence, theft or begging.
That sounds like a really brutal, depressing thing to say. But in an odd way, it gave me hope, because it gave me an explanation for those young men who have committed those rapes. They had no sensibilities. They knew no way of getting love or sex except by taking it, stealing it, robbing it, or begging for it. And that’s what happened.
So I’m not quite sure what I think about it yet. But what I’m thinking about for the moment is that the sensibilities that poverty denies you need to be investigated, and that’s what the novel is about.
What we mustn’t forget is that when I saw these things, I’m a rich tourist in a chauffeur-driven car. So what I’ve got on my hands is a novel about tourism and poverty, but also—because I want this to be a redemptive novel—a novel about love, which has to be present. This novel has to say that people who live on the street nevertheless default to being loving.
Now, as I’m describing this to you, I can see what a muddle it is, but this is what I want to write a book about. But not set in India, because it is not about India. Because what I’ve just described, in a different form could happen in Detroit, it could happen in Middlesex, or anywhere in the world, in Peking or Calcutta.
We know that human beings have a substrate which is very feral. And we see that at football matches, where perfectly nice young men turn into violent people. We see that in war, when men who would never even raise their voices to their wives, will be part of a group that abuses women and rapes women.
So there’s a kind of a feral part of human beings, which can be called upon. And we know that sometimes, certain things like power, not just poverty, release that. Because there are also people who are raping their maids or their secretaries, because they are rich.
There’s pre-civilised strand in humankind, particularly the male part of humankind—but let’s not let women off entirely—which I’m interested in. But I’m interested in it to find redemption from it, not pessimism.
That leads me to my
next question. In a lot of your books, and in all literature actually, there’s
almost a sense that all of us have these intrinsic cruel impulses. The Russian
writers spoke of it, you see it in 1984, in Lord of the Flies. I
wonder whether, for people who like fiction and stories and narrative, having
our crueller thoughts and the impulses which we’re most ashamed of play out in
fiction sort of works in a cathartic way, and therefore removes that impulse.
Yeah, yeah, you’re right. I can’t imagine anyone reading Lord of the Flies and thinking, ‘Oh, what a great idea, let’s bully the fat boy.’ That’s not what you’re going to come away with. You’re going to come away from that thinking, much more likely, ‘I am a bit cruel to that Piggy, the one in my class.’ That’s the only outcome of Lord of the Flies, isn’t it? The only outcome is that people will treat other boys better than they have in the past.
I’m thinking about how Lord of the Flies is actually quite a pessimistic book, isn’t it? It’s tonally pessimistic, but its outcome isn’t, if what I said is right. Writing, storytelling, has to work. It has to have a purpose, because otherwise it would have died out. So one of its purposes is to be, to make us aware of our own shortcomings, and help us to improve on them.
Maybe it’s the difference between literature and popular fiction. For instance, you have these big bestsellers set in Iraq or Afghanistan that glory in war. My suspicion is that young boys are not going to read those books and come away thinking, ‘I don’t want to join the army’. I think the opposite is the effect. I think those kinds of non-literary books are much more likely to influence you in a bad way than a good way.
That sounds terribly snobbish. But what I’m grappling towards is that somehow literature—it’s a shame that’s such a pompous-sounding word—but literature has a kind of moral atlas to it in a way that computer games or violent genre fiction doesn’t.
And I don’t think the writer brings that to it. I think it’s its nature. You start writing a novel, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to the characters, but lo and behold, you find that an undercurrent of moral purpose has started developing in the books. And all great literature, all great books, have a moral purpose.
I read somewhere that
when you initially started writing, you did have a setting in mind, but that
somehow it disappeared, and the book turned into Continent, and your setting
became what is now known as Craceland. What was it in you that rebelled against
a real world setting?
Well, there’s a tug within me. I used to be a journalist. And I was a very puritanical journalist. I used to believe that the facts should be adhered to. And the reason that I did that was that I thought that the facts were Left wing and progressive, and that I didn’t have to tell lies. All you had to do was tell the truth about trade unionism, tell the truth about that factory, tell the truth about poverty. And I felt immensely useful. I felt like I was entering important debates, and changing people’s minds. What you were actually doing was writing a leaflet for the Left.
Now, at the same time, I was doing a little bit of journalism about literature, and I became a specialist in African literature. And I soon became aware that in literature, the West had taken Africa as a kind of a tabula rasa, in which to tell all of their lies.
So, you’d have Evelyn Waugh writing about Africa. He wouldn’t even tell you where it was set. He would call it ‘Azania’. You’d have novels by Graham Greene. He always says this is Haiti, or this is Vietnam. But in his three novels about Africa, he never mentions the country. A Burnt-Out Case, The End of the Affair, Heart of the Matter ... it never says where it’s set. Of course, the worst example of this misrepresentation of Africa is Conrad. You still see that phrase ‘the heart of darkness’ used by lazy journalists to describe anything that’s happening in Africa which represents inefficiency. So, it’s almost as if people writing about Africa were taking it colonially, and saying exactly what they wanted about it.
I don’t have to explain what I’m saying to you, as an Indian, because you know what British writers have done to India by misrepresenting it.
Now, the puritan in me objected to that terribly. So when this puritanical journalist who wanted to tell things as they were, and resented the misrepresentation of real places for fictional reasons, moved over to fiction, I could hardly set my novels in a real Africa or a real India or a real Redditch, unless I was prepared to tell the absolute truth about them.
I couldn’t be a teller of lies about real places. So, almost instinctively, I was inclined towards telling lies, but I also felt obliged to tell lies about places that didn’t exist, because the other lies would be hurtful.
I had to invent an entirely new continent, because as a puritanical ex-journalist, I couldn’t use existing continents. Once I’d done it once, for Continent, I recognised it was my natural voice.
I love this sentence,
from your interview in The Paris Review. You said asking a writer
about his work is like asking someone to cook about dancing. I’m sure, at all
these literary festivals, people are anxious for you to tell them what to think
of your novels. How do you deal with it?
When I’m in places like Jaipur, I feel terribly false. I felt terribly false in Chennai. Because people are really nice to me, but I feel like I don’t deserve them to be so nice to me.
I’m being cute again, but that’s really what I felt. When these kids come up to me, or young writers come up to me, and they ask for my signature and they’re asking questions in that very intense way that they’ve got, the polite Englishman in me – and I hope, my natural kindness – is to take them seriously, and give them the time they’re looking for.
But in order to do that, I’ve got to play along with their sense that I’m an important person, by pretending yes, I am an important person. But at heart, I don’t feel that. What I feel like is a father and a grandfather and a husband, and someone who’s got to mow the lawn, and someone who’s been lucky, someone that’s not young anymore, that’s what I feel like.
So, basically, I’m really socially embarrassed by those things, even though I look like I’m in my element, and I think I’m quite good at making public speeches and all that kind of stuff. But secretly, I’m deeply embarrassed by myself at public events.
I’m not trying to say I’m not thrilled by being a writer. Because everyone who’s published a book has achieved something massive. You know, such a vast majority of people says, ‘Oh, I’ve got a book in me. There’s a novel in my life. Someone should write it.’ And in a way, you know that that’s sort of an empty phrase, but it’s also a deeply felt phrase.
I’m not trying to say I’m not thrilled by being successful. I’ve been very successful. I’m just saying I’m slightly embarrassed by it. So, ‘thrilled embarrassment’. That’s a phrase that completely sums me up. I’m in a constant state of thrilled embarrassment.
But, in these
gatherings, people often feel they have a right to reach into writers’ lives.
And the first thing they want to know is whether a novel is autobiographical.
Does that bother you?
Well, gosh, there’s about three questions there.
First, I think all novels are autobiographical to some extent, but some lesser than others. I think I’ve said before that I couldn’t write a straight autobiography, because my autobiography would be boring. There’s not enough distress in my life. I’ve been very fortunate—a long marriage to a woman that I love, and I’ve got children that I love, I’m in good health, I’ve never been in a war, I’m not gay, I’m not black. I’m a white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual male, living in Europe, in a country cottage. (Laughs)
Yes, all the
privileges one could hope for.
Exactly. So, my traditional type of storytelling is traditional also in the sense that if you hear all those traditional stories told about Beowulf, or the minotaur legend, or whatever it is, you know nothing about the writer, and you learn nothing about the writer. It’s about community, it’s not about the writer. To that extent, I’m the least autobiographical writer you can imagine.
However, if you read Harvest, for example, you’re going to know that I know about natural history. You’re going to know that I’m on the Left. You’re going to know that I’ve lived for some time in a multicultural society that is alternatively hostile or friendly to its incomers. What else are you going to know? You’re going to know that I like walking in the countryside. So, to some extent, you’re always going to get autobiography.
But you also get autobiography in another sense. When I was writing my book about the most pessimistic thing in the world, which is that we’re all going to die—Being Dead—I was in a really good place, I was a very happy person when I wrote that book, and the result is that this book about death is a very, very deeply optimistic book. It says that we’re taken back into the bosom of the earth, and that’s the comfort we’re going to have from dying.
The next book that I wrote, Genesis, is about procreation and family and love, sex, children. It was in a way my answer to people who said I was a deeply dark spirited and pessimistic writer, because I was going to write about things which were only happy. But that turned out, because I was not in a good place when I wrote that book, to be my darkest book.
And the reason I was not in a good place at the time was that my mum was dying—she was in her nineties, but still my mum—and I was caring for her. And she had Alzheimer’s, and she had a terrible cancer, and I was doing all the things you’d have to do to a tiny baby, everyday. And so, that’s an autobiographical imprint on that book. The fact that I was in a dark place imprinted itself, cast a shadow over the whole of that book. So, there’s no escape from the autobiographical.
It’s strange how that
writing can become so relatable for readers, though. I mean, Harvest made me
think of things like the forced opium cultivation in India under British rule,
or indigo farming, or hybrid cotton seeds being imported from America, or even
dams built to generate hydroelectric power submerging villages.
Yeah, something like that is happening everywhere, every single day. There’s an ancient relationship between humankind and the land, and someplace, someway today, somebody is appropriating the land in the name of profit. At this moment, actually this moment, we know that forestry is being cut down as we talk, in Borneo and Indonesia, for palm oil. Palm oil, which has no meaning at all to the foresters who are being displaced. And the same thing is happening in Brazil, with the soya acres, the massive great plantations.
That’s what I wanted Harvest to be about. I didn’t want it to be about England, all those hundreds of years ago. I wanted it to be about the world now, the way in which land is being seized. I don’t want people looking at my book and saying, ‘Ah, this is about sheep farming in England.’ I’d like them to say, ‘This is about the appropriation of our lands for paddy, for soya, for rice, for castor oil.’
I was just thinking of
your preoccupations, in your novels, and one of the main ones is the idea of
class. At one of your sessions at a literary festival, you spoke about how you
felt a bit out of place among writers early on, because most of them came from
privileged backgrounds. And I see that in England, class is still a major
factor: people want to know what sort of school you went to, where your family
is from, what sort of family it is. What is it about England, which makes class
such a preoccupation?
(Laughs) Well, you’re going to get a North Korean-ish lecture here. It’s a preoccupation because the ruling class in England, for so long have controlled so much. And they still control it by second degree. You think about it.
The Bank of England is controlled by toffs. The aristocracy control Parliament, because no law can be passed in Britain without going through the House of Lords. We sneer at other smaller African countries or Asian countries because of their lack of democracy, and their reliance on tribalism. But look at the way in which we have two Parliaments, one of which is entirely unelected—entirely unelected! You tell this to foreigners, and they’re kind of shocked, they’ve never heard of it.
The Church of England, our religion, is controlled by the upper class.
The land is owned by the upper class. The industry is milked by the upper class.
Accents are approved or disapproved by the upper class. And even the English language itself is a class-controlled thing. The three terms of approval we have for English in this country are Queen’s English, BBC English and Oxford English. Those are the three kinds of English we aspire for our children to speak, and each of those is a class judgment.
Now, if you come from the working class, however you define them, there’s also a culture in the working class which is valuable and which is warm and which is endearing and which is my own, that I’m defensive of, but it has no power. And so, a battle line has been drawn. And for me, as a person that is a political activist, it’s a battle line that I politically want to beat down, but emotionally want to preserve.
When you sort of cross
a certain barrier, and against all your instincts, you become someone who is
middle or upper class, it’s a strange dynamic. So you have an Eliza Doolittle
sort of problem, where you fit into neither place, but you also fit into both
places. How do you resolve that?
I was a rebel in both places – the outsider in my working class estate where we were brought up, and the outsider at school. I mean, if I spoke to the boys back home about Walt Whitman or Jack Kerouac, I’d get a black eye.
I was talking to someone about this the other day. You know the prefect system? Well, I went to this posh kind of school. When we got into the sixth form, it was almost a matter of course that you became a prefect. I was the only boy who was not made a prefect. And my father was told by a Labour councillor that he knew, who was on the Board of Governors of the school, that the reason for this was that I was seen as a political troublemaker. And, in a way, part of me was insulted that I had been overlooked in this way, but part of me was reminded that I didn’t belong.
And actually, in my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to belong. I didn’t want to belong to this special group who had this special tie, that could give detentions to people, who could punish boys of their own age. I didn’t want to be part of that.
My sense of self, and it’s self-mythologising, let’s be honest, is to do with the fact that I love my parents, and I’m defensive of whatever they were and whatever they stood for. That’s the truth of the matter. They were working class, and that’s my allegiance, and that’s what I don’t want to let go of. And it’s irrational, and it’s probably harmful, but nevertheless, that is my gut instinct.
I was loyal to a class as some people are loyal to a piece of land. Class is my land, in a way. That’s why I don’t mix in the literary world. That’s why I don’t have any literary friends. That’s why I hung on to living in Birmingham. That’s why even though I live here, I live in a Labour constituency. That’s important to me.
Most people when they get older, they become more Right wing, and I’ve become more annoyingly Left wing.
This is letting my guard down a bit, but here we go. I loved my mum but she died when she was 93. So I felt my business with her was properly shaped, and had a proper length to it. But my dad died when he was 67, and I was young, and I loved my father. My father was a really open-hearted man, but also a Labour Party dogmatist. But a really open-hearted man.
So, when I say I’ve not gotten more Right wing, I’m still as Left wing as I was, I’m in favour of unlimited immigration, I’m not homophobic, all those things, part of it is a love letter to my dad. Because I’m saying to my dad all of the time, ‘Dad, I didn’t change. Dad, I’m still true to what you taught me, the principles you taught me.’ And they’re sentimental principles. They’re not hard-nosed political principles. They’re bleeding heart socialism. I’m a bleeding heart socialist. I’m not a hard-nosed Tory. So there you go.
To someone who was
raised in a Leftist household, what did Thatcherite England really mean? Was
there any difference between your expectations when she came to power, and what
I hated Margaret Thatcher. No, I always knew she was a horror before she was brought to power. She changed the agenda massively. She destroyed dissent. She went to war.
She famously said, and I know it’s a misquote, but basically she meant it. ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ It’s every man for himself. And the principles of post-war Britain were based on society. The socialisation of workplace, the socialisation of medicine, the socialisation and the shared experience of education, all of those things she destroyed.
The idea that the rich paid for the poor, the idea that taxation was something worth defending, even the Tories believed that. Under the Tories, of Harold Macmillan in the 1950s, there was a tax imposed by them on income, called ‘supertax’, which was 94.7 per cent.
And basically what it meant was that things would be free to those who couldn’t afford them, free to those who could afford them, but those who could afford them would pay more taxes.
Thatcher destroyed [that principle]. Since the Thatcherite period, we have got a consensus of opinion from all political parties—even Labour—that taxation is a bad idea.
So, for me, the Thatcher period was a watershed in British politics, and it marked the embracing of selfishness, and all politics became self-serving. The idea of society and community died. And that damage is still there.
I mean, when you look at the Blair years, he was a Labour Party leader. He was supposed to be the leader of a socialist party, and to some extent, he was massively successful, because he was elected three times. But his election was to do with the fact that he persuaded Tory voters that they had nothing to fear. In other words, he was telling them, ‘Everything I’m going to do is going to be Tory in basis’—and the result was that even though we had a Labour Party elected leader, he didn’t do anything that the Labour voters would have hoped for. So, he told the Tories you’ve got nothing to fear, but he didn’t tell the Labour people, ‘You’ve got something to hope for.’
And this is very much a Thatcherite influence. Because everybody thinks they’ve got to satisfy the Thatcherite agendas. Absolutely horrifying.
I guess, with Blair,
his background was essentially Tory.
Yes, he went to a public school. His father was the chairman of a county Conservative association. When Tony Blair, aged seven, went downstairs in his pyjamas to say goodnight to the Tory gentlemen in the front room, then that big grin of his was all about being charming to Tories. And that’s all you need to know about Tony Blair. The most important thing in his life is to charm Tories. And that’s what he did as a Labour Party leader. He charmed Tories. But he didn’t charm me.
I guess this is,
again, to do with class. But many of your characters transition between
stations. The daughter of two professors is a waitress. An uneducated man
aspires to a certain vocabulary. Somehow, there’s something Shakespearian about
that. I don’t know, maybe it’s because people question whether someone from his
background could actually write the way he did.
I’m glad you brought that up. This is one of my constant choruses. There are these anti-Stratfordians as they’re called, who say Shakespeare could not have written Shakespeare’s plays because how could somebody with ‘little Latin and less Greek’, as Ben Jonson says, how could somebody who wasn’t aristocratic write those wonderful plays?
And of course this is a class issue. Where are the great works by aristocrats? They don’t exist. Shakespeare was just the son of a glovemaker. Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker.
But what it reveals is the snobbery, the snobbery which says that if you don’t have blue blood, or an Oxbridge education, then you don’t have sensibilities, you don’t have vocabulary.
And of course, this is the kind of thing which I really abhor. My father wasn’t an educated man, he never went to school after he was 14, but he had all the sensibilities in the world. He had a fantastic vocabulary.
So, with Harvest, I wanted to confront that very issue. I wanted to have a man with little Latin and less Greek—Walter, who hasn’t been educated except for a bit —who was nevertheless able to express himself beautifully, just in the way that my own uncles could express themselves beautifully without education.
You’d once announced
that Harvest would be your last novel. That seems to have
jinxed you, because you seem to have a whole lot of ideas for novels.
Well, I meant it when I said it. A book had been going badly. [A personal setback] made me realise what the real priorities of the world were. And I feel, still, that my arguments for a person who’s had a long career as a writer packing it in at a sensible age and doing other things still holds firm. But what I didn’t allow for was the nagging in my ear of stories asking to be told.
So I was naïve and I was wrong to think I would give up writing. But since that failed novel I didn’t finish, I have had a very successful novel that I did finish. And my circumstances are different.
And I have just won this big prize in America, the Windham-Campbell award. It’s a huge prize, a lot of money. So, just when I was thinking ‘Shall I write a novel, shan’t I write a novel, shall I write a novel, shan’t I write a novel?’, along comes this prize and the prize is there to support you in your future writing. It doesn’t say, ‘...or to make your retirement comfortable.’ (Smiles)
So, well, it isn’t a good enough reason, but it was like a nudge to me. It was like saying, “Well, you’ve got to write a novel now because basically you’ve been paid to write a novel.” Even though the principle of it was that I would move to a new house, and spend my time gardening. (Shakes his head and laughs)
This is my final
question. Tell me one thing that you absolutely dread being asked.
God, that’s an interesting question. That’s a good question. (Laughs) Well, I hate it when people say to me, ‘Which of your books do you recommend?’ because I know what my answer is going to be, and I know it’s kind of insulting and cheesy and vain while pretending not to be vain.
I always say I wouldn’t recommend any of my books, I don’t want anyone to read them. But I also know what an irritating answer that is. It’s truthful. When I go to a party or something, and I meet people and they say to me, ‘Oh, I’ve read one of your books’, I immediately want to leave.
And that sounds very ungenerous. But I think it’s to do with the fact that my relationship with my books during the whole of the conception of those books, and the whole of the pregnancy with those books, and the whole of the birth of those books, is private. So, the most intense times of my relationship with my books is before they’re published. They’re entirely mine and no one knows anything about them, and no one could have a conversation with me about them.
When they’re published, and then people feel as if they can talk about them with me, it feels as if something deeply private has been invaded.
Life is too short and sweet to be thinking about bloody work all the time, and the fact that you’ve got nice work doesn’t make it something you should allow to invade every single nook and cranny of your week. You do it, and then you say, oh great, let’s go to the cinema, let’s have a meal, let’s have a laugh, let’s have a beer, let’s go for a walk, let’s play tennis, let’s take a drive, let’s go on holiday ... ah!
There are so many other things to do. I mean, do I love the books I have written? Well, I’m grateful to have written them. Would I preserve them over my one grandchild? Of course not. Or, if you said to me today, you can’t write any more books or you can’t take another country walk, which one would you choose? Well, I would choose country walks over books anytime.
So, it’s very important to keep all these things in proportion. I am very, very lucky. What I do is deeply satisfying. It’s made me a good living. But it’s not the most important thing in the world.