Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Alan Johnson, MP and memoirist, in conversation with me in Dulwich on September 29 2016

Rated by certain wise heads as the Prime Minister we ought to have had circa 2009, Alan Johnson has won an alternative and arguably more gratifying distinction for himself as a bestselling and prize-winning memoirist. Following This Boy and Please, Mr Postman, he is poised to publish a third volume of life studies entitled The Long and Winding Road, this one carrying his story into the echelons of trade union leadership, election as a Labour MP and a number of stints as government minister. Johnson will be discussing his life and works with me in a special event organised by Dulwich Books at 7pm on September 29, at All Saints Church on Lovelace Road, West Dulwich.

There's a good piece in today's Financial Times by Robert Shrimley, in which Johnson is compared with the former Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin, who has also turned his hand to writing with distinction and who, like Johnson, manages the feat of being a politician who is a recognisable human being. Shrimsley credits Johnson with 'the common touch; an easy manner that belies his intelligence and his hard upbringing.' He goes on to argue:

'At a time when the public is increasingly alienated from the archetypal politician, especially those who seem to have spent their entire life in political activity, the need for able, moderate leaders with a demonstrable human touch has never been more pressing.'

I do take issue with the grounds of this so-called public 'alienation'; and I don't think politicians need to beg for their characters if they didn't happen to come from a tough and unpromising background. It's a fact, moreover, that people with the most obvious human qualities still might struggle with those aspects of political leadership that call for something of the devil's work. And it's quite clear that Alan Johnson, for his own perfectly good reasons, never really wanted to take a crack at the job of leading Labour. Still, however forlornly, I rather wish that he had - just because the road not taken might have been one of the several that could have steered us clear of our present wreckage.

Total Politics: The Knives explains life in government "better than anyone in recent times"

Total Politics in its print incarnation c. February 2012

I was delighted to note this very involving, detailed, personal piece on the Total Politics site by James Frayne, in which he describes The Knives as ‘a startlingly accurate glimpse into the life of a secretary of state’. Observing that ‘everything about life in government departments pressures politicians to behave in ways that are reactive and short-termist’, Frayne proceeds to assert that The Knives ‘explains this better than anyone in recent times’ and is kind enough to credit me for particular authenticity on a specific number of counts.

I take this as well-informed opinion because James Frayne was director of communications for the Department for Education between 2011 and 2012, working for then-minister Michael Gove, having come from employment at a number of lobbying and PR firms. One of these was Portland Communications, founded by Tim Allan, close colleague of Tony Blair while Blair was Labour leader. (Recently Portland had the amusing distinction of being accused by some halfwit cultists of Jeremy Corbyn of having ‘incited’ the latest formal challenge to Corbyn’s risible pseudo-Labour-'leadership'.) Anyhow: from the DoE Frayne moved on to the Policy Exchange think tank in 2014, and now runs his own consultancy, Public First.

The story of Gove's controversial tenure at Education was drafted and rehearsed continually even at the time: there will be a definitive account in due course, I'm sure. Meanwhile, in noting from his own Whitehall experience that ‘politicians make many decisions on the basis of competing pressures’, and must endlessly face ‘flak’ that ‘comes at short notice and demands an immediate response’, Frayne certainly gives a sketch of modern politics that I recognise from my researches.

Faber & Fizz at Dulwich Books 15.09.2016

And on Question Time tonight... Doughty, Spufford, Parker, Kelly
There was a fair old Faber novelist-slam went on last Thursday night in South London. The superb Dulwich Books, now under the inspired management of literary agent Susie Nicklin, hosted readings from and conversation between Louise Doughty (author of Black Water and soon-to-be-telly-smash Apple Tree Yard), Francis Spufford (who has moved formidably into fiction with Golden Hill), Harry Parker (whose Anatomy of a Soldier has been one of the year's major debuts), and myself, representing The Knives.

Before we got down to it, we sat as four for a pre-match interview with Lesley Strachan of Wandsworth Radio, and her adroitly edited version of that symposium can be listened to here.

Afterward we cracked open some prosecco: the 'fizz' part of the billing, which I was all for. It was a lovely evening, at a terrific shop, in front of an excellent audience who asked some striking questions. If I look a bit perplexed in the photo it's probably just because somebody had enquired after my opinion of Liam Fox.

Et tu, Brute: Dotun Adebayo rehearses The Knives...

Now, *that's* a knife...: Mankiewicz's 1953 film of Shakespeare
The morning of Saturday September 3 I was pleased to be asked onto BBC Radio London's Robert Elms show, always a lively and enjoyable slot. Dotun Adebayo was sitting in for Robert, and he and I had a good old chat about The Knives and politics etc.

But really the iPlayer repeat is worth a listen just for the bits where Dotun, evidently struck by my account of the book's depiction of political enmities and back-stabbings, gave abrupt and pretty rip-roaring renditions from Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet.

This is the link, at time of writing, and my conversation with Dotun starts at 02:37:40.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Robert Harris, by me - Esquire (October 2016)

I yield to no-one in my appreciation of Robert Harris's writings but, to be fair, he has millions of readers and I wouldn't want to quarrel with all of them. Suffice to say, I had the privilege of an early read of Harris's consummate new novel Conclave, out on September 22, as well as an early sit-down with him regarding the book; and the results of that dialogue are spread lavishly over six pages in the current issue of Esquire - not online, but a snip this month at £2.50.

The interview focuses on a particular theme for the delectation of Esquire readers: by what mixture of craft and ingenuity has Harris achieved his fairly singular success in delivering a succession of intelligent and sophisticated 'high-concept' bestsellers? The mix of ambition and accomplishment leaves me in awe, frankly. It's a great tribute to Harris that he wears success so lightly round his person.

And he is, I must say, a very personable and highly fascinating man to talk to - about books, for sure, but about anything, really. The Esquire piece runs to 3000 words, for which I am much indebted to editor Alex Bilmes. There were a few exchanges that proved, in the end, not totally essential to the piece but by which I was very struck, and which might intrigue Harris fans, too. I reproduce these below:

RICHARD T. KELLY: 2016 has obviously been a big year in politics. Is truth stranger than fiction? Does a novelist have to struggle to keep up?

ROBERT HARRIS: Oh, truth is far more interesting than fiction, always. In my novels whenever there’s something outlandish, grotesque, defying the imagination – that is the truth, and around it my own second-rate prosaic imagination has provided a sort of paste-setting for these jewels of fact... Really, all I’m trying to do in my novels is to present the facts but make them more interesting – looking at them from another angle...

RTK: How important to you is that business of deciding the point-of-view from which you narrate the novel?

RH: Graham Greene said the key to any novel is deciding perspective. And if you find the point of view from which to see it, that really is nine-tenths of the job. If the subject matter is absolutely vast, sometimes you have to find your way through it by narrowing the perspective. The Cicero trilogy is 25 years of tumultuous Roman history – if you try to do it from lots of points of view you just get lost and it becomes a history book. Whereas if you make it very personal, then you can reduce it to a comprehensible level. Through one pair of eyes it becomes exciting and interesting. I think of it as like being lowered into a cave with one of those flashlights on their head, looking around...

RTK: Do you think historical fiction has a message for our own times?

RH: Popular fiction is often a bellwether of what’s on people’s minds. Historical fiction can be as contemporary as something set in Shoreditch last week, because it just reflects our current preoccupations. I wondered why I’d written three novels about the decline of the Roman republic, and then along comes the Brexit vote and all that followed, and suddenly you can see – there was something in the air about our institutions not being so sturdy as we’d like to think.

RTK: What sort of parallels do you see between Ancient Rome and today?

RH: Here and in America and all around the world, a collapse of faith in institutions and elites which inevitably finds expression in the rise of extra-parliamentary movements outside the mainstream. The Brexit vote seemed to me a rebellion against the established order. Jeremy Corbyn is a rejection not just of past Labour governments but the parliamentary process itself. The Labour Party was meant to be a parliamentary institution to make its way through the system, and that’s breaking down. Donald Trump is a rejection of ‘the system’, as is Marine Le Pen and so on. You see all that in the end of the Roman republic – the occupation of the forum, the hatred of the senate... The moment you say it’s legitimate to intimidate people and set up an alternative power centre, then the power drains away from your existing constitution.
RTK: Were there novels you read as a young person that influenced your idea of what the novel could achieve - that made you want to try it yourself?

RH: I remember the afternoon as a teenager when I read George Orwell’s 1984, that was a very big moment in life. I knew my mental horizons had been enlarged. I’d always been interested in politics, and Orwell was passionately interested in the politics of the world around him. but now this was politics plus imagination – ideas elevated to another plane by creativity, like a rocket escaping the gravity of the earth. Orwell was a brilliant journalist, probably the finest essayist in English, but I can almost guarantee you he wouldn’t be read today if he hadn’t applied creative imagination to his ideas, if he hadn’t written 1984 and Animal Farm...