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Meera Syal in conversation at The V&A, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I desperately wanted to be blonde and to be called Tracey.”

On a cool Sunday afternoon, Holbein and Raphael look down from high frescoes on two empty blue armchairs at the front of the Victoria Albert Museum’s lecture hall. A fashionably scarfed and jacketed audience waits on red cushioned benches for Meera Syal, prize-winning author, star of The Kumars At No. 42 and co-scriptwriter of Bombay Dreams. At 40, she is one of the best-known – and most prolific – voices among young British Asians.

A screening of Anita And Me will follow, co-starring Meera Syal, screenplay by Meera Syal, from the Betty Trask Award-winning novel by Meera Syal.

She enters to applause through a grand side door, looking striking: black outfit topped with red embroidery at the neck and tailed by red stiletto boots, artfully tousled, henna-streaked hair and sparks of gold jewellery. With her is the curator of the V&A’s Asian Department, Amin Jaffer, Syal’s slight, gentle inquisitor for today’s discussion about encounters between Asia and Europe.

Anita And Me tells of a schoolgirl called Meena caught between her Punjabi home and her glamorous blonde friend, Anita. Set in a Black Country village in the 1970s, it is autobiographical, and the conversation becomes more Meera than Meena. But that is what we have come for. She begins slightly nervously.

“I had a lovely, warm family, but life inside the house was completely Indian, completely Punjabi. And then my life outside the house was completely the Midlands village. I would be with my parents and relatives and they’d say, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I’d say ‘Doctor’. And then I’d open the door and go out into the street and it was ‘Awlright, should we go down the pub?’”

Her voice undulates with the story, deftly hopping between her mild Midlands accent, Indian-English and thick Black Country.

“I remember going out with my parents, and if they were speaking Punjabi, or my Mum had her sari on, I’d walk that little bit quicker, in case anybody thought I was with them. Shaming to think of that now.”

Syal has relaxed: arms spread across the back of the armchair, she’s smiling at Jaffer, her legs crossed, red boot pointing.

“People in the village, once they got used to us, were fine, but if someone from the next village came, they would literally come up and touch my skin. You can’t imagine how exotic we were to them. I can remember cutting my finger once in the playground on one of those silver milk-bottle tops, and all the kids gathered round and said, ‘Look, her blood’s red!’”

It is said without bitterness and she rattles out observations on British-Asian life – Punjabi boys were allowed girlfriends, as “It’s only an English girl. That’s OK because he’s marrying an Indian”; on comedy – “The only way to make money from your mistakes”; on writing – “If you don’t belong anywhere, the safest place is in your mind.”

When Jaffer pursues this last point, Syal says: “Writing came to me very young. I used to write these amazingly fantastic short stories. But the problem was I believed the stories.” Like the one she told at school after returning from her first trip to India, about digging rubies from a volcano.

But home was the Midlands, where she wanted acceptance: “I desperately wanted to be blonde and to be called Tracy.” At every stage – A-levels, university, marriage – her generation had to find “whether you want to follow your parents’ path or whether you are going to take a different one”.

Her path took her through Buckingham Palace, to collect an MBE in 1997. Syal recently learned, in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? series, that her grandfathers battled for Indian independence. When it’s time for questions, a man asks her if that affected how she sees her MBE.

“What an interesting question,” says Syal, and there follows the only pause of the afternoon. But no, she says, it didn’t change her attitude, although she has only used the award to try to get her daughter into the right school.

In fact, “the British Empire was kind of part of the reason for taking it. After 200 years of imperialism, for a fat Bhangra from Wolverhampton to go to Buckingham Palace and say ‘Thank you very much’ was symbolically quite interesting.”

It is time for the film, and for the first time Meera Syal seems vulnerable. “Don’t be startled by the broad Black Country accents,” she says. “That really is my fault. I do hope you enjoy it.” She stands, self-consciously smoothes her clothes, and leaves, head down.

25 March 2005

Ian Rankin and Rebus at Waterstones, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Rankin takes off his jacket and drops it gently to the floor as he reads. Once again stillness.’

Glass tiles blur the setting sun on the sixth floor stairwell of Waterstone’s, Piccadilly. In the frostily air-conditioned Simpson Room, 100 black chairs sit in a crescent around a thin black podium. Windows look on to an archetypal London scene of Wren and Hawkesmoor spires but the chattering audience awaits one of Edinburgh’s famous sons, Ian Rankin.

Translated into 24 languages, with 10 million books sold, Rankin is famed for creating Detective Inspector John Rebus (as in riddle). Rebus is intense, awkward and tortured by the memory of bloody crimes. He stalks the contemporary Edinburgh of asylum seekers and MSPs (members of the Scottish parliament), a traditional loner fuelled by whisky and cigarettes, jadedly compassionate, bending rules for justice, never profit.

Rankin’s writing is Stanley-knife sharp: “‘Calvinism? I thought the only Calvin you knew these days was Mr. Klein.’”; “Hate was handed down through the generations like a christening shawl.” At 45, it has helped him gain an OBE, honorary doctorates and the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger award for lifetime achievement.

He enters quietly through swing doors, pale skinned, his jacket, shirt and brogues black, his jeans peat brown. There the darkness ends. Rankin has come to talk about the reissue of his first, pre-Rebus novel The Flood – and the non-fiction book, Rebus’s Scotland. He smiles easily, one hand in a pocket, the other gesturing loosely, as if among friends in his (and Rebus’s) beloved Oxford Bar in Edinburgh.

Rankin takes us back to his writing roots and his home in the mining village of Cardenden in Fife. In The Flood, it was disguised, thinly, as Carsden. “People from Cardenden thought they could see themselves in it. My dad thought he could see himself in it. I got a shit load of trouble. That is what led me to create Inspector Rebus because he was very unlike me. People couldn’t read it and see themselves or me.” Now first editions of The Flood fetch $5,000 in America, he says, appalled. Yet in 1986, the 200-copy print run didn’t even sell out. “It was pulped, I got a letter saying ‘Would you like to buy the remaining copies at 10p a copy?’ I said ‘No, I’ve got five here.’”

The joking stops as he reads an extract. He uses the podium for the first time, erect, formal, voice dipping at the end of sentences, shaping lines as if reading poetry. The room is utterly still and remains so as he talks about inventing Rebus. On the same day he signed the contract for The Flood, he sat in his PhD student digs and an image came to him: coded messages in the form of knotted string and matchstick crosses.

“I thought ‘Who’s getting sent these little picture puzzles? Maybe it’s a cop and the person tormenting him is from the past.’ And it just went bing bang bong from there.” He called the cop Rebus and the resulting novel Knots And Crosses. “As a writer, you don’t get many days like that,” he says.

The Scotland of the novels is bleak. “I would love to write about Rebus enjoying the beauty of the Scottish countryside. ‘My God look at that view, isn’t it fantastic. The traffic is great compared to London.’ He doesn’t see that because the nature of the job has made him cynical and jaundiced.”

The essays and photographs of Rebus’s Scotland try to redress that view. But the DI’s brooding character sells books, and the photography in the book is sombre urban monochrome, not gleeful highland chocolate box.

Rankin takes off his jacket and drops it gently to the floor as he reads. Once again stillness, but his tone is lighter as he diverges to talk about having a street named after him in forgiving Cardenden. “Ian Rebus Court. The wind-up there, of course, is that most people in Edinburgh say I should actually be in court for crimes against literature.”

After the reading, there is more self-deprecation. “Just in case there is anyone in from Desert Island Discs, I’m waiting for the phone call. Every bloody writer I know in Edinburgh except Kate Atkinson has been on Desert Island Discs.”

Then: “Who has got questions? Sir.” Had he thought of setting a Rebus case abroad? No. “Whenever I read a crime fiction series, the weakest is the one where the cop goes away.” Rebus is now 58, won’t he have to retire at 60? There are options, Rankin says. “I can stop the clock. Nobody minds that. Nobody minds that Dalgleish is 105, Wexford 86.” But he finds it “really sad” that an MSP took up Scottish parliament time to ask if the Edinburgh CID’s retirement age could be extended to save Rebus.

Rankin thanks his audience. “If you’ve got any questions and didn’t want to ask in front of a crowd, please do come up and ask me later on when I am signing books. Even if you’re not buying a book.”

A long queue forms. Outside, a male and female beggar scream at each other. The woman starts kicking the man. One for Rebus, not his genial creator.

11 November 2005

Fast bowling: cricket in Ramadan, The Wisden Cricketer

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘The twin Emirates Towers skyscrapers faced each other on the horizon like conferring umpires.’

In a small office under Sharjah Stadium, the tall, lean fast bowler Ali Assad smilingly described a cricket and fasting life to cripple an SAS XI. One night he finished a Ramadan Tournament game in Abu Dhabi at 12.30 a.m., got home to Sharjah at 3.00, ate, slept for three hours (missing the last chance, pre-dawn meal) worked all day in his store keeper’s job, drove to Abu Dhabi, played until 11.30 p.m., then drove the two and a half hours home. How, how can he do it? Ali paused, “It is hard, but it is the craze for cricket.”

Up in the stadium 250 spectators lounged under floodlights for two pre-quarter finals in Sharjah’s CSS Ramadan Trophy, South Asian men in salwar kameez or tight trousers and stripy shirts, munching pop corn and peanuts, drinking condensed milk tea, eyes on the play. Women in saris sat in the padded, ‘Ladies/Families Only’ seats, their children hopping about the steps. Fireworks burst in the distance: Ramadan days are slow but the nights are celebratory.

The UAE’s cricketers celebrate with hard-fought tournaments. In fact “Ramadan is just a festival of cricket,” Naeem Aslam had said, back in the office. Naeem, the pointy-sideburned young captain of the powerful ECB Blues called the tournaments “cricket as a passion.” So Ramadan always means fasting and cricket? Naeem fasts diligently but chuckled, “Cricket first, fasting second.”

Isn’t it hard fasting from dawn then playing cricket? Naeem shrugged, then conceded “It is difficult in summer.” That means night games only, the players eating a light, Iftar meal after sunset then feasting after the game. A winter Ramadan includes the cakewalk of 35ºC afternoon games. Without drink breaks. Ramadan 2005 fell in autumn, so it was only very hot and the players only had to forego food and drink for 12 hours or so.

Sharjah and Abu Dhabi’s Ramadan Tournaments are Twenty-20s, Dubai’s 25 overs: 185 fixtures altogether. Clubs compete alongside company-sponsored sides, teams often entering more than one tournament. Players, all amateurs, sometimes turn out for more than one team. (Ali does, and fits in training for the UAE national team.)  Schedules conflict, fixtures recede mirage-like then, at the end of Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr blows a party-sized, two day hole in them.

After the Ramadan Tournaments, “the craze for cricket” marches on. The UAE’s 250 teams and 7,500 players (almost all first or second generation subcontinent immigrants) play in a mammoth September to May season of cups and leagues. Some teams still then “enjoy” the odd 45ºC summer game.

At Sharjah Stadium that night the clubmen of Players Enval started crazily enough in the 7.30 fixture against Air India, with two fours and a six thwacked to the cover boundary in the second over. Crackers boomed in the stands.

Desmond Rodrigues, manager of the Fly Emirates team and former first class player in Mumbai, dragged on his cigarette. Most UAE competitions he explained are played on sand-and-clay outfields and glassy cement strips that delight batsmen and punish bowlers. The 32-team Sharjah Tournament meant “All the rank amateurs get a chance to play on turf. The ranking teams get a chance to show their skills.”

Players Enval’s skills deserted them as they plummeted to 86 all out. Air India spooned a catch in their first over. Players Enval rushed optimistically in the field. A  false dawn. Air India made it with seven overs to spare.

At ten o’clock, Fly Emirates against Seven Seas Strikers, company teams whose players, unusually, actually work for the companies. The exception was the lanky, goateed Tim Anderson, once of  South Australia, now working for the ICC. Tim was new to the team, his place no forgone conclusion: Emirates beat a stunned Durham on their pre-2005 season UAE warm-up.

As Seven Seas practised catching white balls against white floodlights, Tim discussed the Ramadan Tournaments. “They go for it more than we do. And it’s fantastic how people will be out till  past midnight watching cricket.” The fasting? “It’s difficult for a Christian Australian to comprehend. It’s quite a show of strength. We could learn from it.”

Hampered by the spin of Freddy Sidhwa, Seven Seas’ amiable grey-haired captain and Group Chairman, Emirates prodded to 112 for 6 off 15. It was past 11 and cool. Light mist blurred the floodlights. Suddenly Emirates accelerated. In the stands a chanting group of lads started drumming an empty water cooler. Emirates roared on their batsmen, “That’s going, that’s going and it’s gone! Shabash shabash!” With Seven Seas fumbling the damp ball, Emirates flew to 175.

Between innings, Emirates jogged round the field, then sprinted across. Seven Seas were unimpressed. Wickets fell but they kept in touch, Khaled pasting 98 off 49, one of his eight sixes chipping black paint off the sight screen. At 1.10 a.m. and with the crowd bubbling, Amjad bowled the penultimate over: 24 needed. He wrong footed Seven Seas, going round the wicket then over, round then over. They fell 14 short

Three nights later, they bounced back in Dubai’s Dulsco Tournament. Isolated among sand and cement pitches, the grass Dubai Cricket Council ground was a quiet world away from Sharjah Stadium. The twin Emirates Towers skyscrapers faced each other on the horizon like conferring umpires. Spectators lay on grass banks around the floodlit pitch.

Seven Seas struck six an over and MEX Logistics made a bid for the tournament’s nosiest fielders. In the corrugated roof pavilion was Freddy Sidhwa in a broad-brimmed hat, 64 and still collecting Bowler of the Tournament awards. He shouted in Urdu to the middle. “I told them to go for it now,” he said.  Ayub obliged, reaching 77 before being bowled.  Sweat flicked off his yellow baseball cap as the tall, Roman-nosed Ayub acknowledged the pavilion’s applause.

Freddy, who wakes at 4.00 then jogs before an hour’s yoga, was unfazed by Ramadan cricket. “Tiring? No on the contrary, it is very refreshing I’d say. During the winter months it is OK. Many times we play in the morning and the evening.” In the second innings, Freddy helped his side into the pre-quarter finals with 2 for 31.

New Medical Centre had won the Abu Dhabi Tournament and now wanted the Sharjah one. The stadium’s drummers were back, thumping the water cooler with an empty green bottle. Belhasa Driving Centre’s innings began at 7.30. At 7.35 they were 2 for 1. NMC’s spinners applied the brakes.

“Spinners work better in this tournament,” said the white-haired Mazhar Khan of the Emirates Cricket Board and ICC Executive Board. “Batsman like the challenge of the fast bowling.” He thought Twenty-20 fun but, well; “This is just bang bang bang.” NMC stopped even that, quick in the field with the ball still dry.

They strolled their own innings, jogging between wickets, picking shots, winning in 10 overs. “They have played about 15 games this month,” said Mazhar. It didn’t look it. They finished with a six slapped casually over deep square leg. As Naeem had said, “Everything is easy in Ramadan.”

With special thanks to Gopal Jasapara of cricketlovers.com.

January 2006

Surviving genocide: a meeting, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I don’t feel hate. I don’t know why.”

Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, OBE, is giving another talk. A quietly spoken woman with a kindly face and braided hair, Mary is the Director of Survivors Fund (SURF). Her talks describe how the charity she founded in 1997 helps survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu militia), and how the genocide effected Rwanda and her family.

But today is different.  Her audience are survivors themselves: the monthly lunch at a West Hampstead Jewish centre of fifty or so members of the Kindertransport Association (KTA). The elderly, sweatered men and smartly coiffured women, were some of the 10,000 Jewish children given refuge here from Nazi Germany.

When the apple strudel is cleared away, Mary is introduced by the KTA’s dapper, goateed Chairman, Hermann Hirschberger.

“Mary was born in 1963 in a refugee camp in Burundi. Her parents had fled from Rwanda in 1959 because there was a revolution, at that time, and 20,000 Tutsis were murdered.” A murmur moves through the audience. “This was only the shape of things to come unfortunately. Because Mary’s family decided to return to Rwanda and that of course was a dreadful mistake. During the genocide, is it 50?” Hermann looks at Mary, who nods. “Fifty family members, including Mary’s parents, were just slaughtered.”  There are sighs from the aged orphans.

Mary stands, the microphone tight to her chest. She helps thousands of survivors every year, and runs London’s SURF office with only one colleague, but talking about the genocide can still be difficult.

“Pain doesn’t go away, grief doesn’t go away, but we have to work every day and look forward, and not to forget the people behind us. I thought I was very lucky because I had escaped. Now looking back I think I wasn’t so lucky. I should have remained and shared life with them. Because I didn’t know…Excuse me.”

Mary cries. She struggles not to, but cries. Bertha Leverton, MBE, a refugee from Munich in January 1939, gently passes her a napkin. Mary dries her eyes and continues, the red napkin twisted between her hands.

When the killing started Mary was in Kenya, where her husband worked for Save The Children. She tried to enter Rwanda but the borders were shut during the genocide.  When they opened, she went to her grandfather’s village, where her family had sought refuge. It had been attacked. “They chopped them up and put them into one big pit of a hole and put soil on them. When I saw them about three weeks after the genocide, I could still identify arms, hands, clothes. I got some friends and we covered everyone up but it was raining, so the rain kept coming and taking the soil.”

“I felt anger, I felt frustration. I didn’t feel hate, I don’t know why. I spent five months after the genocide, burying the dead, working with the survivors,  listening to their stories. During the genocide, they used men who were HIV positive to rape women and infect them. About 200,000 orphans lost their entire families.”

“My parents always said when we were young, ‘You should never blame anyone. You should always try and do something about the situation’. And that strengthened me, thinking, ‘Well I could blame this community, I could self-destruct. Or why don’t I try and do something with my energy.’ So I set up Survivors Fund.”

When she has finished, the questions from around the formica tables are unusually well-delivered. They suggest lifetimes of needing to be beyond reproach. What does SURF do in Rwanda, a stocky, serious-faced man asks.

“The Survivors Fund raises money for school fees, to educate orphans. We provide shelter, because most of the young people who are head of the household don’t have homes: when the genocide happened, they pulled their houses down, they killed all the animals. HIV and AIDS is a severe problem for women who were infected during the genocide. We help with that and the trauma of that.”

There is also the Humura (‘calm’) Centre that SURF is building in southern Rwanda.  (It will be a memorial, education centre and a shelter for the still-traumatised.) SURF also helps fund small farms and vocational education for survivors. And they train survivors to counsel other survivors: the victims can be very wary of non-victims, especially now some of the Hutu militia have finished their sentences. In all, SURF helps 29,000 widows, 11,000 orphans and 40,000 dependents in Rwanda. Mary spends a third of her time there, learning the survivors needs.

Hermann thanks her on behalf of the KTA. “Whether black or white, tall or small, rich or poor, in some way, you and us are brothers and sisters.”

Mary leaves to give another talk, at a Clapham school. As she had explained during questions, “When you try and legitimize injustice, you are creating Rwandan genocides. That is what I try and get young people to understand.”

25 May 2007

Alan Bennett, telling tales at The National, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘The pocketed hand twitches about as he emphasises phrases and words, like the frantic feet of a gliding swan.’

The Olivier Theatre is packed to the concrete rafters, its 1,150 plush pink seats sold out before Alan Bennett’s reading even made it into the theatre brochure. Northern and Hampstead voices mix in a celebratory babble.

It is a tidy, middle-aged crowd. Ever since the Yorkshire scholarship boy left Oxford for 1960s satire and the Beyond The Fringe review, Bennett’s stage and screenplays have largely concerned ‘ordinary people’: housewives, spinsters and underlings, the lonely and unfulfilled.

Even the public figures in his work (The Madness of George III; Guy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad) deal in private failings. He is a genius of comic half-logic (“Mr Craven has always been on the side of progress: he had false teeth when he was 27”), and of the mundane intruding on the disturbing: in one of his famous Talking Heads monologues, a woman discovers her neighbour’s murdered body but can’t help wondering how the blood will wash out of the rug.

Bennett’s humour, and compassion for the drama in small lives, has created a public affection unique among dramatists. And when he potters, head down, onto the Olivier stage, the applause is huge.

He stands behind the lectern throughout, looking like the Magdalen lecturer he once was, in grey flannels, linen jacket and V-neck sweater. At 71, his still-blond hair is youthfully floppy. He holds Untold Stories, his second volume of memoir, diaries and observations, the cover removed, Post-it notes poking out.

Looking through big tortoise-shell glasses, he says, like a teacher, that there will be no questions and answers “as I’m reading from a new book very few of you will have read”. The two Northern aunties next to me have, and chuckle, one of them whispering “Oh, this one” as Bennett begins with the personalities of his kitchen implements. “Some wooden spoons for example, I think of as friendly, others as impersonal.” He worries about a thick blue-and-white plate “taking offence if I discriminate against it by using it less. Set down this seems close to insanity.” Read out, in his gentle, half-puzzled Leeds accent, it has the audience falling about.

He stands relaxed, book held casually in one hand, the other in his trouser pocket. But the pocketed hand twitches about as he emphasises phrases and words, like the frantic feet of a gliding swan. His readings jump too, from church visits to anecdotes to music, shifting us from volcanic laughter to contemplation and once, when this famously private man mentions his partner, Rupert, to penetrating silence.

On the writer’s life, he is self-deflating. “January 1997. I am sent a complimentary copy of Waterstone’s literary diary.” The birthdays of authors are marked. He finds Dennis Potter, Michael Frayn, then turns to his own. “May 9th is blank, except for the note, ‘The first British self-service laundrette is opened in Queensway, London, 1949’.” Calling the coal merchant from his Yorkshire home he is told, for no reason: “I don’t care how celebrated you are, you’ll never be a patch on your Dad.”

He searches slightly anxiously for the next extract, his uncertainty part of the Bennett charm that makes him seem normal, one of us. When he reads we remember he isn’t, if only because of his friends. At Alec Guinness’s funeral he wonders how such a fastidious but religiously devout man coped with sign of peace handshakes. He recalls John Gielgud saying of David Storey: “Ideal author, never said a word.”

The quavering imitation is exactly Gielgud, and Bennett treats us to more. A gay New Yorker turning down the portly director John Schlesinger in a bathhouse witters, “Oh please, I couldn’t. You’ve got to be joking”. An upper-class country lady mentions her church’s trouble with “the myrrh”. Bennett says, “The incense?”. She replies, “No, no! The myrrh for the grass.”

He keeps returning to the ecclesiastical (“Here’s another church visit I’m afraid, ha!”) and historical, telling us of the yews at Fountain’s Abbey, older than the 12th-century monastery, of Kathleen Ferrier’s legendary contralto floating from a Leeds slum chapel in 1947, out over grimy snow.

Bennett’s acid, after this, burns deep. On whether gay partners of the dead should march in the Remembrance Day parade, he imagines “a shout from somewhere in the ranks of the massed graves: ‘What the fuck does it matter now, anyway?’” He has had enough of “those mammoth charity performances which always turn out to be overlong, slyly competitive and never the least bit heart-warming”.

At the end, Bennett puts his book aside to thank the National, first home of many of his plays. “It’s a pleasure to come in here on a morning.” Then he smiles, broadly, as if about to laugh, and potters off, head down, book under his arm, to long, ear-ringing applause that hopes for an encore that doesn’t come.

25 November 2005

Douglas Hurd, The Daily Telegraph

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“Blair simply didn’t understand what sending soldiers to kill and be killed was about.”

Lord Hurd, a One Nation Tory, lives in a suitably mixed London street: council flats and low pastel terraces, old Fiats and 4x4s. Hurd’s house is a moderate blue. Smiling, he welcomes me with that penetrating baritone and a summit-firm handshake, the rebellious quiff still in his hair.

At 79, he moves with stately caution. In youth, he was meteoric: scholarships to Eton and Trinity, Cambridge, president of the Cambridge Union, top in the Foreign Office exams. After postings to Peking, the UN during Suez, and Rome, he left in 1966 for the Conservative Party’s Research Department.

Again, Hurd ascended. Political Secretary to Edward Heath, he became an MP in 1974, shadow spokesman, junior minister, Cabinet member and finally, Foreign Secretary, 1989-95, his watch crowded with the crumbling Soviet Empire, Maastricht, Bosnia, Croatia and the invasion of Kuwait. He joined the Lords in 1997, an established party elder.

Hurd has written, too – thrillers, history, politics, his memoirs and now, with Ed Young, Choose Your Weapons. It examines how Foreign Secretaries, from Aberdeen to Eden, echoed the styles of their forerunners Canning (dynamic, noisy, idealistic, interventionist) and Castlereagh (patient, diplomatic, pragmatic, alliance-building).

Hurd sits in a comfy armchair by his fireplace, a curtain half-drawn against the morning. Legs firmly crossed in blue cords and slippers, cardigan buttoned to the neck, he looks more Castlereagh than Canning. Is he, I ask?

“Yeah, it’s the way I am. Which is methodical, not brilliant, not a great original. Canning was an original. Castlereagh was more ordinary, systematic, good at his job. That was what I wanted to be.”

If Hurd wasn’t an original, what was his strength?

“The ability to cut through things, to say, ‘That is very interesting, Sir John, but it isn’t actually the central point’. And then back, maybe slightly crudely, to the point.”

Couldn’t he have done that as a civil servant? “Politics was always gnawing at me. My father and my grandfather were MPs. I did acquire that interest, particularly from helping my father in elections. It was huge fun.”

Hurd’s trek from diplomat to Foreign Secretary went via Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Home Secretary. “The Home Office is a hell of job, really a grind.” Risking assassination alongside his jovial Northern Ireland police protection was preferable to delivering his centrist Home Secretary’s speeches to hangers and floggers at the party conference.

But there have been more serious lows than those speeches. Hurd’s first marriage ended in separation in 1975. His second wife, Judy, died in 2008.

In politics, he lost the 1990 Conservative leadership election, partly because he was perceived as a toff scion of the peerage (although his father was a life peer, and then only from 1964).

“My father wasn’t grand, he wasn’t a toff. And I’m not. The voice is a problem, but I can’t really change that. It’s a good politician’s voice, everybody can hear what you say. But it’s got a tang which annoys some people.”

Hurd’s stint as Foreign Secretary was, he says, “a sort of climax”. He’d arrived with Castlereagh tendencies, after witnessing the humiliation of that arch intervention, Suez. Hurd’s Christianity influenced his approach, too. “I’ve never had any respect for people who say ‘He’s just a do-gooder’. Doing good is what we are about, it seems to me.”

Two of Hurd’s uncles died in the First World War. Perhaps that gave him Castlereagh-like caution? “Interesting. As I said in my memoirs, [his grandparents'] drawing room in Highgate had a powerful effect. It was a shrine [to his uncles] with photographs and so on. And I feel strongly Blair simply didn’t understand what sending soldiers to kill and be killed was about. Margaret Thatcher understood, slightly to my surprise. She knew you were playing with people’s lives. I never had that feeling with Blair.”

The memory of Bosnia still troubles Hurd. Even though military advice was strongly against intervention, “there is a genuine doubt in my mind as to whether, if we’d acted differently or more emphatically at the beginning, we might have brought the end of the war nearer. I’m not sure. It’s a worry.”

Given Hurd’s worries, Robin Cook’s New Labour talk of an “ethical foreign policy” angered him. “In a way, that is what created this book. If you look at Palmerston, Salisbury, all the great debates of the Victorian era are about ethics: is what Britain is doing right or wrong? And for Robin Cook to prance in and pretend he invented it was very hard.”

Hurd returns to Iraq, his long white fingers steepled into a cage. “The key thing Blair omitted, apart from the business of killing and being killed, was thinking things through, weighing up the likely balance of consequences. He didn’t do those sums. Can’t have.”

At least, Hurd believes, British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan strengthen relations with America. “Americans don’t really think in terms of a special relationship. Sometimes they pretend to because they are polite. But I don’t think they look around at every stage and say, ‘What is the British advice?’”

That detachment disappointed Hurd after the Cold War: he couldn’t influence America into reshaping institutions like the UN for a changed world. “George Bush [senior] wasn’t a visionary. It had to be led by the United States and he didn’t do it. I don’t blame him. As Fukuyama said, history had come to an end.”

And, like Castlereagh, Hurd is a realist. Universal values like democracy, he learnt, can’t be universally enforced. Thoughtfully, and a little tired, he says: “This is one of the real difficulties of a Foreign Secretary’s life. He has to plead guilty to double standards. It’s like finding a burglar. If the burglar is a small, wizened burglar, you kick him out. If he’s a great hulking chap, you don’t. You deal with it and produce a situation better than the one you found. It’s part of the job: you spend a good deal of time being nice to nasty people.”

And the current Foreign Secretary, is he a Castlereagh or Canning?

Hurd smiles. He likes the “very courteous” Miliband but says, “We don’t know. He is worrying all the time about whether he is the next Prime Minister and that is a handicap. He is a man of great promise.”

Work (he is deputy chairman of Coutts) and causes, such as the Prison Reform Trust, keep Hurd busy, along with watching cricket with his grandchildren. Then there are PhD students, who question him for their theses.

“They assume the subject they are taking is burnt into my soul. And they are very cross when they ask about a meeting on, say, September 3, that isn’t in my [old] diary. I disappointed one such inquirer because my diary just read, ‘Judy loses the car keys again’.”

Judy Hurd died of leukaemia in November 2008. “She encouraged [the book] in her own way. Because she was ill, she didn’t really take a great hand in it. But I dedicated it to her because I miss her and she was a crucial part of my life. It took three years to write. I tried not to cram too many analogies in. I hope I have not oversimplified. I hope I’ve played fair.”

30 March 2010

Billy Bragg, Time Out

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I’m now in west Dorset, though everyone in my village comes from Essex. Plus ça change.”

On a slate-grey East London morning, Billy Bragg ambles out of Gallions Reach DLR head up, affable and stocky. At 49, the Bard of Barking looks more of a dad than a hungry rebel (as he is, to 12-year-old Jack by his partner Juliet).

Armada Way leads off into wasteland. Bragg, though, is looking past the scruffy present. He points out Shooters Hill over the river, where Caesar marched, and the Gallion’s Hotel on Albert Basin, where Rudyard Kipling stayed. And in his new book, ‘The Progressive Patriot’, he quotes Kipling’s poem The River’s Tale and its image of a harmonious, pre-Roman London: ‘And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek/Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek.’

A memoir-cum-polemic, The Progressive Patriot, was sparked off by the BNP winning a Barking Council seat in 2004. Its victories this year, and the 7/7 bombings, added fuel to his ire. The book is a cry from a multicultural heart for the Cross of St George to be embraced by all of England’s inhabitants – just as political rights from the Magna Carta onwards came to embrace all English people, just as the East End absorbed different immigrant waves. So we go to Beckton, home of the first London Bragg.

Winsor Terrace is bricks-and-mortar East End history. The southern side is a sturdy, dark, Nineteenth-Century terrace. The north side is modern, honey-coloured semis. Tall, padlocked gates dead end the road. Once the entrance to the Beckton Gas Light and Coke Company, they now guard an untidy park. Bragg’s great-grandfather, Fred, lived where the semis now stand.

“Great-grandfather Bragg was born out in Essex, so the gasworks were the reason my people came here,” says Bragg, studying the terrace. “And coming from the countryside, where they were in cottages, these would have been something great. If my brother was here, he’d be admiring the brickwork. He’s a bricklayer.” Bragg nods across at the semis. “He built a lot of these.”

He built over the site of their great-grandfather’s house? “Yeah. It’s hugely ironic. I only found out when I was researching the book.”

In 1889, Fred Bragg and his fellow workers made a historic, successful demand for shorter (eight-hour) shifts. In 1911 another of Billy Bragg’s great-grandfathers – George Austin, a ‘permanent labourer’ in St Katharine Docks – was in a famous strike against the humiliating ‘call-on’ system where un-unionised, casual workers would crowd at the docks, hoping to be picked for a day’s work.

Bragg looks at the padlocked gates. “This is where they walked in every day. Now it’s just park and a bit of wasteland. When they opened these gates in 1871, this was the largest factory in the world”

The factory touches several Bragg generations; not only his brother’s brickwork. “When I was a kid in the ’60s, my great-aunt, who was the daughter of Fred Bragg, still had gas lighting. It was a sort of echo of where her father had worked.” And the union that led the 1889 strike was the forerunner of today’s GMB. “I work very closely with the GMB on tour, I play under their banner. And that was the union my great-grandfather would have taken part in.”

Bragg talks about this radical inheritance as he walks up Fred’s old street. “I guess in   genealogy there is an element of looking for something you can relate to in your past. My    father never spoke to me about politics. My mother doesn’t have any interest in politics. I had my broad humanitarian feelings, like opposition to the Conservative Party. Well, you get that with your free school meals in Barking.”

That half-interest changed when he saw the Carnival Against the Nazis in Hackney’s Victoria Park in 1978. On stage were people he’d later come to know, such as Tom Robinson and his heroes, The Clash. “That was the first political thing I’d done in my life. In some ways, writing the book is just a continuation of the struggle that event introduced me to.”

Bragg sits on a front wall while Jill Furmanovsky takes photos. A claret Hammers flag hangs from a bedroom window. West Ham were a big part of his boyhood. “I remember standing in the road watching them bring back the FA Cup in 1964. The year after that they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Then in 1966 they won the World Cup. When that has happened before you are ten, you’ve got it for life.”

It was a “very ordinary” childhood. “We lived by Barking Park, so we had the run of the park, it was beautiful. We’d be over there till late. Our parents knew where we were, we didn’t have to cross any roads. I went to the old Victorian school my dad went to.”

Does he lament changes to the East End since then?

“You used to be able to smell this gasworks from my school,” he laughs. “So no, not particularly.”

Well, does he worry about the affect of the new Thames Gateway development, regenerating vast tracts all along the river east of Westferry?

“No, no, we’ve done this before. Becontree Housing Estate [in Dagenham] was the largest social housing project in Europe. They built more houses and brought more families into Becontree in the 1920s and ’30s – my mother included, and her family from Cable Street – than the Thames Gateway is going to bring. And Becontree didn’t kill the borough, it made it.”

Does he still feels like a working-class, Barking bloke? “I do, this is what I most identify with. Even though I’m now in west Dorset – though to be honest, everyone in my village comes from Essex: plus ça change. But Barking is who I am, it’s where I’m from.”

We head closer there, driving to the Gallion’s Reach Shopping Centre on a dual carriageway (on land where the young Bragg rode shopping trolleys down ditches), stopping for a cappuccino in a traditional East End Starbucks.

In conversation, Bragg fixes you with watery grey eyes, rarely glancing away, and speaks with lyrical precision as his mind hops from idea to idea. His hands are held together, making only occasional neat gestures. He talks straight, bloke to bloke, citizen to citizen, without a performer’s distance.

Was his first musical love, folk, unusual for a Barking boy? “No, there were a few folk clubs around mid-’70s, I suppose the tail end of the folk revival. I mean Paul Simon came and played out in Brentwood.” (And, as Bragg speculates in the book, probably changed trains at Barking.)

The Clash drew Bragg to punk. He tried to dress the part: “When I went to see them at The Rainbow I had on a mohair sweater my mum had knitted and my brother’s school tie, but I still had a semi-mullet. I hadn’t gone the whole way.”

Neither had Barking. “Punk was very much a West End phenomena. There was a circuit [of venues] in the East End that ended at Canning Town. It wasn’t a circuit that went to The Marquee.” So when his early band, Riff Raff, played The Marquee in 1977, “it was Valhalla. If that had been the high point of being Billy Bragg, I would still be immensely proud.”

His family’s store of memories includes an ex-Cable Street aunt being told to be home before dark or the Blackshirt bogeymen would get her. So how has the East End gone from Blackshirts losing the Battle of Cable Street, to the BNP winning in Barking?

Bragg’s fluency slows as he thinks. “Most important is a sense of betrayal by the people of Barking with the Labour Party that, historically, has delivered for them. Barking has the cheapest housing in London. So that aspect of prosperity New Labour has relied on, rising house prices, has no affect here.”

“So these people are in some ways stranded, excluded from the prosperity of the South-East. And because housing is so cheap, there is a huge influx of people looking for somewhere cheap to live. And the BNP has been clever, by seeing that Barking has had the largest influx of non-British-born people of any town in Britain.”

The result, Bragg says, is too much competition for resources: unfair to immigrants and locals alike. “And the local people are so frustrated at the running down of resources and public services in this area that they are lashing out.”

But how do you beat the BNP? Two East End traditions, says Bragg: its ability to absorb all comers and to collectively see off a threat. “That has been the motif for the East End: constant change highlighted by moments of people working together, such as Cable Street in 1936 or the Second World War or building the Welfare State, where the community came together against people who would prefer us to be divided. I think that is how we will deal with the BNP.”

It is World War II, thinks Bragg, that crystallised the East End’s identity, which he calls “A working-class pride, a resilience that has its apex in the Blitz. They stood up to it and came through it and for their sacrifice they got the Welfare State. They could look the rest of London in the eye and say, ‘We’ve earned this, it’s not charity.’ ”

Asked about London’s more recent bombings and Bragg shows real venom for the first time. “The men who committed that terrible, terrible atrocity are as opposed to multiculturalism as the BNP. The July 7 bombers have done more damage to multiculturalism than the BNP. I see them both as a threat that has to be dealt with. It’s not a matter of assimilation: one of those guys worked in his father’s chip shop. It’s about believing it’s in your interest to be here and to be a part of this community.”

Has his old community missed out on all the East End hipsteria of Hoxton and Spitalfields?

He laughs. “Barking has never been trendy. Also we’ve had to put up with the snobbery of the Essex Man, Essex Woman bullshit. I think the white working class are the least served by our present concept of society. You never hear people talking about feckless Irish or Pakistani or Caribbean workers. But seldom do you hear about the white working class without terms like that being used.”

Snobbery isn’t the East End working class’s only problem. Low house prices mean “For people in a place like Barking, the traditional route out to somewhere leafy like Chigwell has closed. Those left behind are no longer able to be absorbed by Ford or the gasworks. Everything was geared around the seasons of the factory: the sense of being a part of something, that you had pride to work there. It’s lost if you end up stuffing shelves in Tesco supermarket.”

It is time to drop him at his mum’s for dinner in Barking, as in his concert sign-off: ‘My name is Billy Bragg. I’m from Barking, Essex, thank you very much.’ When I ask why he still uses that line, he pauses. “My mum still lives here. I am still from Barking and…” His brow furrows. “I suppose I say that by way of explanation for everything that has gone before.”

Driving into his home town, he brightens. A big yellow and red sign announces the office of the local Labour MP, Margaret Hodge. Bragg notes it and says she didn’t have an office here until the BNP started doing so well.

A flyover takes us past abandoned, fire-damaged council flats. “These were built when I was a kid. They are about to be knocked down. So I’ve lasted longer than them.” Round the corner, a smaller, bright white art deco-style block. “These are brand new. It’s like Barcelona, innit?”

The gothic gables of his primary school in the distance, we wind through streets that suggest a town distinct from London. At a Victorian pub, fronted by busty statues, he says “This is a great pub –The Britannia, known locally as The Titty House, for obvious reasons.”

We drive along Victoria Road, on what was once the boundary of a pre-Roman settlement, Uphall Camp. Satellite dishes line the street like shields and we stop at the junction with Uphall Road. “See how the road rises? That is the gravel promontory that the camp was built on.”

Victoria Road comes to a dead end, a concrete wall along one side. “I used to deliver papers here. The River Roding is just over the other side of those houses. There was a mist over here and a chemical works. So it was pretty spooky on those winter mornings, when you are 11.”

On his mum’s road two Asian women chat, one in jeans and a sweater, the other in a salwar kameez. Bragg points out newer houses that replaced six bombed in the War. We arrive at his mum’s terraced, bow-windowed house, Bragg family home since 1905.

“That little boxroom there was mine,” he says. “That’s where I spent my adolescence, listening to Paul Simon.” Who might have been changing trains at Barking, as you listened.  Bragg smiles: “He may well have been, if he was going to Brentwood. So I’ve got Kipling here, I’ve got Paul Simon here. If only I could have got George Orwell here on the 87 bus.”

8 November 2006

Susan Hill, The Daily Telegraph

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“There are these two sides in life, always: the innocent do suffer and there is evil.”

“What was it like having your first novel accepted before you were at university?” I ask Susan Hill, winner of the Whitbread and Somerset Maugham awards, author of three GCSE and A-level set texts. We sit in her 18th Century farmhouse. Crows call from the chimney-pot.

“Hang on a minute.” Hill jumps from the enormous Knole sofa, creeps across the drawing room, lifts a poker. “Close your ears.” She thwacks the chimney hood hard three times. The crows shut up. Hill settles back down. “Part of it was exciting, obviously. The other part was – it sounds awful – but, inside me, I always knew it would happen. That’s what I’d always done. It was the one thing I could do.”

What she has mostly done since is literary fiction (a phrase she hates, characteristically): subtle, absorbing novels such as Air And Angels, Strange Meeting and Mrs de Winter, a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca; enigmatic short stories; clever ghost stories such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror.

But suddenly, in 2004, she started producing contemporary crime fiction: The Various Haunts of Men was the first part of a trilogy featuring the intense, detective-artist Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. The second, The Pure in Heart, has just appeared. Why the switch? “Writers need to have, not exactly days off, but to write things that are not coming from deep down inside you, but are actually rather more cerebral and direct.”

The books had an unnerving origin. In 1983, Hill’s oldest daughter Jessica, then six, walked alone to a nearby sweet shop. When, 15 minutes later, she hadn’t come back, Hill became frantic. Although Jessica returned safely, Hill remembers her fear, and thinks of those children who never came home. Years later, she returned to the theme.

“I was, like most people, incredibly affected by what happened in Soham. I began to think about how crime affects the victims, their families, the wider community. Why do people do these things? Why Harold Shipman? Why Ian Huntley?”

In The Pure in Heart, a child, David Angus, is abducted. The setting is the 21st Century Cathedral city of Lafferton – where gated homes shroud the outskirts; hoop-earringed harridans scream vitriol outside a paedophile’s house; ordinary people parrot precisely observed police-speak (‘Police say they are becoming increasingly concerned for David’s safety as time goes on’); and Serrailler has to turn media performer at press conferences.

Some of the descriptions could grace Hill’s more literary fiction: ‘The mist settled like cobwebs on their faces and hands’; ‘the moon slipped out and silvered the room again and the space between the beds was the width of the world’. Tension is ratcheted up by short, first-person chapters from the abducted David that are highly unsettling to read – as they were for Hill to write.

It is not a whodunnit. “It is not who – it’s what happens when a child vanishes and you don’t know where they are and what has happened to them.” Characters are as important as the search: the emotionally distant Serrailler, wanting sex but not love; Detective Sergeant Coates, despised on the council estate of his childhood; Serrailler’s twin-opposite sisters, the lively, pregnant Cat and the semi-comatose, disabled Martha.

Hill, born in 1942, was brought up in Scarborough and Coventry (her accent, like her loyalties, remains Northern), and has earned a living as a writer since leaving King’s College London, juggling early parenthood with book reviewing and writing Archers scripts.

Despite her shift in genre, The Pure in Heart centres on an old Hill preoccupation – the persecution of the innocent. In I’m the King of the Castle, it was the bullied schoolboy Kingshaw; in The Mist in the Mirror, the blameless James Monmouth, hounded by ghosts. Even in lighter books such as Gentlemen and Ladies, benign spinsters are harassed by batty old trouts. In The Pure in Heart, it is David Angus.

Hill sits forward, hands between her knees, thoughtful: “Why do the innocent suffer? There are these two sides in life, always: the innocent do suffer and there is evil.” Evil’s presence, she thinks, comes from love’s absence. She cites two friends, a forensic psychiatrist and a judge: “They both say they have never really known any serious murderer or psychopath for whom the key isn’t somewhere in an unloved childhood.”

Hill does not show the world completely at the mercy of malevolence. As an “instinctive counterbalancing”, figures of open but convincing benevolence people her books. One of the most striking is Jo, from In the Springtime of the Year, the only novel closely based on Hill’s life, and the only one she wouldn’t change at all. In 1972, Hill’s lover of eight years died. She was poleaxed. But the short, emotionally exhausting masterpiece which resulted, about Ruth, a young country widow, still elicits letters of thanks from bereaved readers (as I’m the King of the Castle does from bullied schoolchildren). Ruth had Jo, her patient young brother-in-law. Hill had David, her kind chorister godson.

Her powerful memoir, Family, details another bereavement. In 1975, Hill married the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. After Jessica, and several miscarriages, Hill gave birth to her daughter Imogen, very prematurely. Five weeks later, Imogen died. That story’s telling is typical Hill: shrewdness without cynicism; compassion without sentimentality.

It distanced her from God, for a while. She says every believer is challenged, “almost for God to say, ‘You thought you knew what I was like, your house of cards has come down now. Let’s start again.’ ” And, unlike some of her books, Family has a happy ending: the birth of Clemency who now, like Jessica, is studying for a degree.

Susan Hill, too, is working towards a Masters degree in theology. There is also her small publishing house, Long Barn Books, to run, more short stories to write, and more Serrailler novels. She calls them “entertainments”, as Graham Greene, her greatest novelist hero, did his less literary books. Hill admits it is a funny word for crime-writing, especially because hidden in all her novels, often unconsciously, “there is always a message somewhere, always a moral”.

What the message of ghosts is, she isn’t sure. “You get down to the 0.00001 per cent which are inexplicable in any other way. But I don’t know what they could be because I don’t see the point in them.” She laughs and gestures across the room, “What is the point of taking your head off and walking through a wall?”

Hill shows me the garden. The Cotswolds rise around. New Dawn roses, recommended by Angus Wilson during a Booker Prize judging, climb the house walls. She and Stanley had their eye on the house for years. They bought 50 acres around it too (courtesy of Mrs de Winter), left them chemical-free and saw wildflowers and birds flourish. Hill points to their cherry orchard. The white blossom had been out a couple of weeks before. “It was like walking through a field of ghosts.”

26 June 2005

Stella Rimington, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“In those days I didn’t think of MI5 as a career. I thought it was all rather amusing.”

I sit in the reception of a Bloomsbury hotel, watching the door, waiting for Rimington, Dame Stella Rimington. This is home ground for the former Director-General of MI5, who worked here, on Gower Street, in her early espionage years.

Another Dame – Judi Dench – is said to have partly modelled her purse-lipped, steely portrayal of James Bond’s boss M on Rimington. But the slightly stooped 72-year-old with a becoming hairdo and elegant jacket who wanders into reception is nothing like that. Rimington gives a kindly smile, a soft handshake and we go through to the conservatory.

Was she as bossy as Dame Judi’s M, I ask? She laughs, a big hoot. “No, I don’t think I was. I was fairly clear about what I wanted but I was collegiate. Most of the things a leader has to decide are difficult, and you try and surround yourself with people whose opinions you value, and who are not exactly like you.”

Rimington has a faintly northern accent – though born in London in 1935, she studied at Nottingham Girl’s High School and Edinburgh and Liverpool Universities. She laughs a lot. When concentrating, she looks away, eyes flicking. When worried, she twists the solitaire ring on her wedding finger. She talks about intelligence or terrorism with slow circumspection.

The four years from 1992 to 1996 that Rimington spent as head of MI5, at the apex of Britain’s domestic intelligence network, were eventful. MI5 took over from Special Branch as the agency responsible for countering IRA terrorism on the UK mainland. The 1994 Intelligence Services Act brought the intelligence services under parliamentary committee scrutiny. An IRA ceasefire began in August 1994 and ended in February 1996. Meanwhile, MI5 moved from their assorted West End offices to the imposing neo-classical bulk of Thames House on Millbank.

What can MI5 do against terrorism? “Prevent certain terrorist plans taking place, by prior intelligence and good police work. That’s what MI5 does. It can never achieve 100 per cent success because there is no such thing as 100 per cent intelligence…The difficulty is, people see the attacks they [MI5 and the police] have failed to prevent. They don’t see the attacks they have prevented.”

The subject of prevention is not new to Rimington. Shortly after 9/11, it was alleged by The Observer newspaper that in 1994 Rimington had closed a joint MI5-MI6 section investigating Middle Eastern Islamist terrorism. Is this true? “It’s a complete misunderstanding. We [MI5 and MI6] did briefly have a joint section working against Middle Eastern targets. It was decided it would be better if MI5 focused on the threat to the nation, terrorism, and MI6 focused on trying to get intelligence. We [MI5 and MI6] were trying to focus more closely on our own business, rather than mixing it up.”

How, as a former director of counter-terrorism, does she feels when she sees Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister? (At his trial for possessing explosives and ammunition in 1973, McGuinness said, “I am a member of the IRA and very, very proud of it.”)

Her grey eyes burn. “That’s quite difficult.” She pauses. “But I also feel the work we did to stop the IRA ultimately brought the Republicans to the point where they were prepared to engage in the political process.”

Does she miss MI5? “No. I found it very difficult when I first left because it takes over your life. Suddenly you find yourself outside the ring of secrecy. [There is] a sense of bereavement coupled with a sense of relief, that you no longer have to be responsible for these things.”

However, the issue of secrecy did not completely disappear from her life. In 2001, Rimington published her autobiography, Open Secret. It was scrupulously discreet but still created a lot of media fuss. Even at draft stage, the Ministry of Defence’s copy was leaked to The Sun, which then sent it round to Downing Street in a taxi.

Did she regret writing it? “I did have doubts as the process went along. But I knew there was nothing in it that was actually going to be damaging.”

Is it harder keeping secrets in an age seemingly obsessed with transparency? “More and more information does get out,” she says. “It’s to do with 24-hour press coverage and the internationalisation of the issues. If information doesn’t leak out here, it might leak out of the United States. I don’t think there are more leaks from the intelligence services. But the more oversight there is of these organisations, the more chances there are for information to leak out.”

Since retirement, Rimington has been a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer and British Gas, Chairman of the Institute of Cancer Research and sat on the board of the Royal Marsden NHS Trust. She now restricts herself to one-to-one business mentoring, sitting on the board of the domestic violence charity Refuge and writing spy novels.

Was boredom her great fear? “I think that, yeah. As you get older there is a fear that if you stop doing things you will no longer have anything of interest in your life. Since I retired, I’ve created new families. I left the intelligence family. I then joined Marks & Spencer and that was another family. Now I’m in publishing and that’s another.”

Family is a theme Rimington returns to often. Her early life was unsettled. The family moved around wartime Britain as her draughtsman father changed jobs. With her own family, she took the decision, bold in 1971, to return to work three months after the birth of her daughter Sophie. (Her second daughter, Harriet, was born in 1974.) Rimington balanced family and career with the help of childminders and improvisation, once having to settle Sophie in the bedroom of a safe house with her homework while meeting an intelligence source in the sitting room.

In Open Secret Rimington says her MI5 role damaged her relationship with her daughters. Has it improved? “Hugely. We now get on extremely well. But it was extremely difficult, particularly when I was director-general. Sophie was at university and students don’t necessarily think being head of MI5 is a good thing. She had to put up with intrusive press stuff as well. Difficult for Harriet because she was living at home and we had to leave home. At one stage I really did feel I was going to lose both of them.”

Rimington has been a single parent since she and husband John separated in 1984. (They still see each other: “We get on very well,” she says, and chuckles.) Has there been anyone else? She suppresses a laugh: “That’s private, I think.”

Stella Whitehouse was 27 when she married John Rimington, a childhood friend, in 1963. John was posted to the High Commission in New Delhi in 1965 as First Economic Secretary. It was here that MI5′s man in Delhi (a Jaguar-driving baronet, enticingly anonymous in her autobiography) invited her to help with administration. She worked in the commission’s information research department and, when the Rimingtons returned home in 1969, she joined MI5 as a junior assistant officer.

“In those days I didn’t think of MI5 as a career,” she recalls. “I thought it was all rather amusing.” Over the next five years she worked on Northern Ireland intelligence, counter-espionage and the search for Soviet agents planted by the Burgess-Philby-Maclean-Blunt-Cairncross spy ring.

She got serious about it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I moved into counter-subversion [and I began] to realise what was going on was, literally, subversion. The Soviet Union was trying to undermine western democracies by infiltrating areas which were levers [of society].”

In Rimington’s second novel Secret Asset an undercover agent is murdered by the terrorists he is spying on. The book says, “There was sometimes self-indulgence in feeling guilty.” Did she have to suppress emotions when running agents?

“To an extent you do. In running agents in a terrorist area, the key is proportionality: the balance of the seriousness of the thing you are trying to prevent, against the risks you are asking [your agent] to take. The compact is that if the agents are taking risks, you will look after them.”

It must be stressful. “Yes, yes, it is.”

Rimington has always said MI5 does not kill people. Had she ever wished they could? She jolts. “No. No. MI5 is an intelligence organisation, it’s not a direct action organisation. It is trying to find out what people are planning, then prevent it by use of the law. So, no. No.”

By 1981 Rimington had risen to number two in the Soviet Bloc section and, over the next decade, kept rising until, in 1992, she was named Director-General of MI5. She was the first woman DG and the first publicly identified by MI5. Journalists camped on her doorstep and The Independent published a photograph of her house (resulting in her and Harriet moving out).

Going public was a little odd, she recalls. She even gave the BBC’s Dimbleby Lecture, in 1994. “That was very strange, having lived in the shadows suddenly to be on television talking about what we did. I wasn’t nervous about what the public would say but about carrying the thing off with credit to everyone [in intelligence].”

In her autobiography, Rimington describes the periods of anxiety, claustrophobia and depression she suffered from her mid-20s to mid-30s. How did she overcome those, and the lack of confidence she had when she joined MI5? “Gradually. You gradually come to realise there are things you actually do quite well, and that everyone else is not super-brilliant.”

When has she been happiest? “I was very happy as Director-General, it was a fantastic job. I’m happy now in that I have no hugely demanding problems to solve, I have a family I am close to and an interesting job.”

Does she have a writing routine? “About now I start thinking about the plot. I get going about September and work on until around May.” Her favourite spy writer is John le Carré. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Smiley’s People. All those guys in hairy sports jackets smoking pipes. It was very reminiscent of when I joined MI5.”

Rimington’s third and latest novel, Illegal Action, concerns murder and espionage among the Russian community living in London. Does she think the Russian secret service killed former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko?

“If the Russians did, their tradecraft has deteriorated remarkably from what I knew. You invite someone to have tea and then you pour poison in it? The evidence seems to point to this former member of the intelligence services but, as I say, it [the murder] is disappointingly straightforward.”

Before we part, I ask Rimington why she’d wanted to meet in Bloomsbury. Disappointingly, it had nothing to do with old MI5 days: she’d been lunching with Quercus, who will be publishing her books after Illegal Action. She had begun to find Random House too corporate. Is Quercus more family-like? “Much more, yes. There you go, I’m creating myself another family.”

28 July 2007

Howard Jacobson, The Daily Telegraph

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“In not knowing, all the interesting things happen.”

Howard Jacobson offers me mineral water in a crystal glass. We are in the drawing room of his Soho loft: at one end, a balcony library; at the other, a vast window framing jumbled roofs stretching to The City. It’s a long way from Salford.

Jacobson was born there, a working class Jewish boy, in 1942, and raised in Manchester. At seven, a teacher predicted little Howard would be a novelist. She was right, eventually: his first novel, Coming From Behind, only appeared when he was 40.

But now his ninth, The Finkler Question, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Like its predecessors, energetically literate books like Kalooki Nights and The Mighty Walzer, it is serious, and seriously funny. It follows three friends, Libor, Finkler (both Jewish widowers) and the pitifully romantic Treslove, as they stumble through crises of identity, fidelity and loss.

Jacobson sprawls, one leg over the arm of a pearl grey armchair, eyes watery under owlish eyebrows.

How does he feel about his first Booker shortlisting?

“I am delighted but also strangely upset. I’m trying to work out why. Being moved like we all are when someone is nice to us, but in the way that when you are alive you are most aware of your mortality. But it is very nice.”

He has already told his mother in Manchester.

“I thought she was going to say ‘Are you sure? ‘ When I got the telegram from Cambridge 50 years ago to say I’d got a place, she said ‘Are you sure it is not a mistake?’ My first instinct is always to say ‘Are you sure?’ But what she said was, ‘Enjoy the now. Don’t think about the next stage’. Very sound. The shortlist is the thing and you are mad to think about anything else.”

Unlike his bookish mother, Jacobson’s late father wouldn’t have known what the prize was.

“But once I had explained, he would have been delighted. As he got older, he got softer on us, not that he was ever hard. On his death bed he said – it was very upsetting – one of the things that had made his life worthwhile was that I had become a successful writer.”

As for Jacobson’s wife, the TV Producer Jenny De Yong, news of being shortlisted moved her deeply. “We went into a long, long hug,” he says. “Short of writing it, she couldn’t be any closer to the prose and the enterprise. She, too, is very concerned I enjoy the now. But you know what it is like, the mad voice that says, ‘What if…?’ But you deal with the mad voice and I’m going to be very grown up.”

Is the Booker Prize in his mind when he writes novels?

“No, absolutely it is not. You just think about making it the best you can. ‘Is that up to scratch? Is that the best that can be done?’ When you finish the book, the trouble starts. ‘What will my agent say? What will my publisher say? What will the world say?’ And then, no matter how much you try not to be distracted by prizes, you can’t help it.”

For Jacobson, ever since his first novel, “There was this feeling, there is this thing called the Booker Prize that you are judged by. Then I had a period in the late 80s when I chaired the Late Show programme about the prize. So I always feel I’ve been involved in some way. And then in the last eight or nine years I’ve been longlisted. Now I feel its arm around my shoulder, at least. And I’m snuggling in, enjoying the now.”

There was enjoyment in Jacobson’s beginnings too. His father ran a market stall. “He was a magician as well, a personality of Manchester, of the street. Some poor novelists are the children of novelists. How hellish is that? My mother was self-educated. I remember sitting in the dark at night while my father was out trying to earn a living and we listened to radio plays together.”

His hands, like his mind, rarely stop. He races through sentences in his Manchester accent, a brogued foot tapping the air, funny, likable, self-deprecating.

From Stand Grammar School, Whitefield, Jacobson won a place reading English at Downing College, Cambridge, under the legendary F.R. Leavis.

“Horrible.” He pauses, as if picking through the awfulness. “I turned horrendously shy. And I got sucked into the Leavisites. They were all very introverted. We hung around in an intellectually superior manner. I was just frightened really.”

After the Cambridge low, the high of lecturing in English at Sydney University (“I had no choice but to find my father’s [extrovert] self”); another, impoverished, Cambridge spell, teaching at Selwyn College; a failed first marriage, his wife keeping their son; then a second, abortive Australian jaunt. Jacobson found stability at Wolverhampton Polytechnic.

“But I got more and more desperate. The novel I had always hoped to write I hadn’t written, even through my thirties.”

His efforts would falter after a few pages. “I really did want to write about country house life, of which I knew zilch. Or I wanted to be another Lawrence. I come across the pages now and again. They make me wince. I thought ‘You make people laugh in your lectures. You’re not Tolstoy after all, you’re not George Elliot. Do a comic novel.’”

Hundreds of rewritten pages later, Howard Jacobson, novelist, finally arrived. “It took me years when people said ‘What do you do?’ to say ‘I’m a novelist’. Because I valued it so.”

A Kalooki Nights character says, “Colourful writing never did yet proceed from confidence”. Is that him?

“I think you have to lack confidence, to have some sense of being not quite at home in the world, to even think of being a writer. If you’re David Beckham and you’re handsome, people love you, you can kick a ball around, you’re not going to think ‘I’d like to write a novel’. What for?”

Jacobson writes novels with provocative stances: his characters are often emotionally masochistic, almost wanting loss or betrayal.

“I think it’s a Jewish thing, masochism, a strategy for survival. You know disaster is going to befall you if you are Jewish, or you [must be] mad. So you pre-empt it. I’ve argued that is what a Jewish joke is. ‘We will make more fun of ourselves than anyone can, but we will do it intellectually’.”

Infidelity is another recurrent theme. Hasn’t that worried his wives?

“They’d be mad not to wonder. I mean I ruined my first marriage. That wasn’t the ruination of my second marriage. My third wife [De Yong] who has read my novels, naturally wondered what kind of man she has. I’m not my heroes, I have not led the life that they have done. But I led sufficiently an unreliable life to cause people pain. I don’t have any desire left to do any of that.”

Religion is a third thread through Jacobson’s work, and an ambiguous view of God.

“I can’t say I believe in God but every time I hear someone saying they don’t believe in God, it sounds so tinny.” He looks to one side, concentrating, hand to his mouth. “Whatever one makes of Dawkins as a scientist, as a thinker I have no regard for him whatsoever. He couldn’t write a novel out of that kind of certainty. That will not make a novel. That will not make a painting. In not knowing, all the interesting things happen.”

Unusually for a Jacobson novel, The Finkler Question poses political questions, about Israel and when Anti-Zionism becomes Anti-Semitism.

“People talk about [an Israeli] massacre when there was an attack, about genocide when there isn’t genocide. And so a thing gets fixed: Israelis are people who massacre people. And then many Muslim speakers, many imams, move seamlessly from Israelis to Jews, the Zionist Entity, the Jewish Pig, and very slowly you’ve got: Jews are people who massacre people.”

He enjoys an argument. “I don’t have the taste for controversy that I did, but I like debating with Intelligence Squared, places like that. I like the fight. And over Israel, I’ll fight until I’m the last man standing.”

The Finkler Question partly concerns bereavement. In ugly coincidence, three friends of Jacobson’s died last year. (It is dedicated to them.)

“There has been a lot of it. I’m of that age.” The 68-year-old pauses. “One was in Australia, I was speaking to him in his last days over the phone. Horrendous. Another friend came to see me in London, I’d no idea he was ill, shook me by the hand and said, ‘You won’t see me again’. All that was getting into the book. Comedy too. It’s comedy but it’s not.”

Jacobson’s family ties have strengthened though, particularly with his son.

“I was not a good father. I left when he was three and there was a problem for many years. Then he came to see me when he was about 20. We had that conversation, sorted it all out. Now he has his child on whom he showers so much love, I realise how much he must have missed it. But I feel, after all, there is continuity there.”

Jacobson, still the Manchester United fan of his teens, returns to Manchester to visit his son, and his own mother and sister. De Yong, his “third and final wife”, helped him rebuild the relationship with his son.

Treslove, The Finkler Question’s helpless romantic, lets his great loves escape. That, says Jacobson, was him, before De Yong.

“I think I’ve been saved by a miracle, a Deus Ex Machina. Of course life is not finished yet and you shouldn’t…” He pats the armchair for luck. “But I feel where Treslove goes, given what I’m like, I should have gone. And it hasn’t happened.”

8 September 2010

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