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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

Capt. Doug Beattie, MC, The Daily Telegraph

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“And not to call us ‘squaddies’. ‘Squaddie’ is saying we are all the same. We are all different.”

Doug Beattie MC, Capt. (Rtd.) of the Royal Irish Regiment, walks across Northallerton Station car park in a Hawaiian shirt and cotton trousers, his watery-blue eyes smiling.

“Sorry about the car.”- a melodious Ulster chuckle -  “It’s the wife’s. Real hairdresser’s car.” Big frame buckled into the sporty BMW, Beattie, 43, drives us through Yorkshire lanes, lively and chatty, asking about London. He avoids it, disliking crowds. Even Catterick market sparks bad memories: pulling two terrified Baathists from an avenging mob in Iraq in 2003; suicide bombs on his 2006 and 2008 tours of Afghanistan.

Beattie’s first book An Ordinary Soldier narrated the frantic, bitter retaking of Garmsir in 2006, where he won his Military Cross. To quote the citation, “In the initial phase he personally led the fight and guided police in an advance over 1.5 kilometres, outflanking Taliban positions and unhinging their defences.”

Task Force Helmand covers 2008, as Beattie and his small regimental detachment ‘mentor’ Afghan National Army soldiers. It is an intense account of patrols, exhaustion, ambush, death, friendship and fear, movingly told.

The Beatties’ flat is barracks-neat. Margaret, Beattie’s petite, dark-haired wife of 22 years, makes tea. On the wall hangs a forest green Royal Irish banner, presented on Beattie’s retirement as Regimental Sergeant Major, one landmark in a 27 year progress through the ranks.

His Sergeant Major father, and two brothers, served in the regiment. After retirement, Beattie’s father joined the Ulster Defence Regiment during the Troubles. One bored afternoon, the 15 year old Beattie found his pistol in their Portadown home and accidentally shot a friend. (He survived.)

“I remember seeing the hole and the blood. But I remember more that my father was embarrassed.”

Keen to prove his maturity, Beattie enlisted in the Royal Irish at 16. His father, a widower struggling with grief and alcohol, missed the passing off parade.

“I don’t believe he didn’t care but my father came from that era where you don’t show emotion.” He died of cancer earlier this year.

“They had to take his throat box out so he never got a chance to say he loved me, that he was proud of me. I’m sure he was proud. About two weeks before he passed away he hugged me for the first time I remember. I took that as his way of saying what he’d wanted to in previous years.”

Beattie is close to his own children, Luke, 19, and Leigh, 21, (mother of grandson Tristan, one). There is no pressure on Luke to enlist.

“I don’t think that matters. I’m extremely proud of him for the person he is and I tell him and I hug him. He’s a nice guy and there is a lot to be said for nice people.”

This gentleness of Beattie’s surfaced with the MC: its award made him cry. Why?

He holds his hands together on the dining table, looks straight at me.

“Shame, and a feeling of worthlessness: the young men who would never return home or would return home physically or mentally injured, to receive nothing. It’s humbling. And some of the acts I had done in 2006 in Afghanistan, I haven’t been able to reconcile with myself.”

He describes ordering an airstrike on an enemy communications building, knowing it would kill three already injured Taliban.

“I felt it was right. Then you leave Afghanistan, you don’t have that fear, and you think: did I need to do that? If I hadn’t they probably would have lived, would never have fought back.”

The relentless fighting on his second tour changed him.

“In 2008 the fact that I had to take enemy lives never bothered me. Maybe the fact I am sitting here saying, ‘That is the wrong way to feel’ is a way of coming to terms with it. I see myself as a compassionate man. But getting my men out alive was my priority. I didn’t care about anything else.”

Writing about Afghanistan, then showing Margaret, was cathartic but troubling.

“This guy you have known for this many years has the ability to thrust a bayonet through a living person. There’s a fear people would see something different in you, not the loving father.”

Does he still have the Afghanistan nightmares described in An Ordinary Soldier?

“I do and I get taken off guard by loud noises. The sights, smells and sounds of Afghanistan will I think always be with me.”

Why did Beattie, due to retire in 2007, agree to return to Afghanistan in 2008?

“I belonged to the last Irish regiment in the British Army, a small, tight knit group. I knew Afghanistan. I could tell them what to do, what not to and hopefully save lives. I couldn’t watch it like some voyeur on television.”

He still can’t: Beattie recently agreed to enlist in the Territorial Army to train soldiers for Afghanistan. Will he have to return there?

“Well you sign on the dotted line. If things change and they say ‘We need a Captain, you fit the profile, will you go?’ I would.”

What does Margaret think?

“She hates the thought but understands. We’ve had a very strong marriage. Although if I told her I was going back tomorrow there would be big, big arguments.”

Beattie smiles, right arm across a chair back. Tattooed on the forearm are his and Margaret’s names, in Pashtu. But he has had two families.

“In Afghanistan, your family is the men you are with. It’s why our guys do what they do. It’s not for Queen and country, not for the gratitude of the population, it’s for the young men on your left or right.”

How could he repeatedly, deliberately, expose himself to fire in Afghanistan? Beattie returns to camaraderie. “Fear of failure: fear that you have led your men into a situation where one of them is going to be killed. So you want to be where you can influence the conflict. If that is by standing up where there are bullets, you do. Men are doing that as we speak.”

Does he worry he is attracted to war? Again the answer is in his men.

“I do worry. But there is a feeling of worth about commanding young men in situations like that. And it does drag you back. Not to kill. Not that I want to fight. I am just drawn back to men grouped together, going out together.”

Task Force Helmand is thoughtful, compassionate, sometimes disturbing. (Beattie angrily recounts Afghan militias sexually abusing their young chai boys.) But won’t some buy it just for the fighting?

“That is a problem. I’d like people to read the book to get an idea of the soldier. The pain you feel on failure, the pain you feel on success. And not call us squaddies. ‘Squaddie’ is saying we are all the same. We are all different.”

I ask to see this soldier’s medals. The Military Cross feels surprisingly delicate, slight. There are nine more medals, from Northern Ireland to the Iraq War to Afghanistan. A silver oak leaf sits on the Iraq Medal’s ribbon: the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, for rescuing those Baathists from the mob. “The MC was for killing. This was for saving lives.”

8 October 2009

Tom Paulin, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I think I’ve had all my arguments. I suppose I’m nearly 60, maybe I’ve grown up. Belatedly.”

The muddy waters of the Isis slope past the end of Paulin’s quiet Oxford street. His house is Victorian, with a bay window, neatly paved front garden, trim bushes and shiny front door. Paulin, 58, shoeless and amiable, leads me into an elegant interior of well-matched furniture and rugs. He says Giti, his wife of 35 years, chooses the furniture. In the drawing room, Paulin seats me by the fire.  He sits on a chaise longue, one arm over his crossed legs, the other stretched out on the seat.

His sometimes explosive, acidic appearances as a critic on Newsnight Review have brought fame but are a sideline to Paulin’s career as an academic, author and poet. The GM Young Lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford since 1994, he has written eight collections of poetry, from A State of Justice (1977, winner of the Eric Gregory Award) to The Road to Inver (2004, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize); edited five anthologies of poetry and prose; put his own poetic spin on translations of Sophocles and Aeschylus; been a director of ‘Derry’s cross-sectarian Field Day Theatre Company; and written six volumes of literary criticism.

This month sees the publication of an engaging seventh. The Secret Life of Poems analyses 45 poems by 45 writers, from Shakespeare to Muldoon. Metre is examined, images illuminated, surprising interpretations offered. Paulin argues, for example, that Keats’s Ode To Autumn is codedly political, with redcoat soldiers and the Peterloo Massacre lurking behind the poem’s poppies and harvests.

My freshly-printed copy of The Secret Life of Poems is the first he has seen. He bends over it, leafing through, gripped, murmuring, “God that’s amazing…It’s a nice cover…. Yes…Great lot of permissions…”

How, I ask, did he choose the 45 poems? “They were ones I was interested in and thought I had something to say about,” he says, enthusiastically. “Like Ode To Autumn, where I tried to put a different position. I wanted to write a book which would be about the DNA structure of poetry. The way poets talk about poetry in terms of rhythm and metre and cadence. I had the idea of writing what I hoped would be a kind of handbook [on poetry].”

His early poetry was haunted by Ireland’s Troubles: ‘the hill quarries / Echoing blasts over the secured city; / Or, in a private house, a Judge / Shot in the hallway before his daughter / By a boy who shut his eyes as his hand tightened’ (Under The Eyes). Conflict also dominates his much later The Invasion Handbook, the first volume of a planned poetic trilogy on the Second World War.

Does conflict attract him as a subject?

“I haven’t thought about it consciously. Paul Klee [the artist] when he was in the German army, was in charge of a petrol dump on an aerodrome. When one of their planes crashed, he’d cut the canvas off the fuselage and do a painting on it. And I suppose that’s what we [Northern Irish poets, including Heaney and Muldoon] were doing.”

Paulin’s later, free verse poems can be hard, but rewarding, work. “I wish I could write lyrical poems but I just write the way they come. You do what you can. You go through periods when you don’t write. I haven’t written a poem for about a year and a half. You just have to hope something will turn up.”

He doesn’t enjoy giving readings of his poems,  worrying people won’t like them. “Or not understand them. Should write more clearly I suppose. But it’s too late now. Well, we’ll see.” He smiles.

This Paulin, self-critical, uncertain, is a long way from Newsnight Review’s Mr Angry. Since appearing on its forerunner, Late Review, Paulin has wielded the critical machete without fear of older establishment figures (‘He should never have been allowed near a paintbrush, absolutely awful,’ on David Hockney) or current ones (‘I am not interested in the bits and pieces that make up this man’s attempt at imagination,’ on Turner Prize-winner Douglas Gordon).

But what really makes Paulin so entertaining a critic is his unpredictability. Mike Leigh’s revered play Abigail’s Party is dismissed as ‘middle-class anxiety mocking the aspirational working class’; the Star Wars films are ‘an extraordinary epic about the American Republic… Take the Jedi, they represent the American Constitution’; the comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is ‘a work of genius…national folklore being created in front of your eyes’.

What attracted him to appearing on television? “I thought it would be fun. You meet lots of bright young people, you see all sorts of things you wouldn’t have seen. You find yourself alone practically in a Manet exhibition or a Jackson Pollock exhibition.”

Have his appearances affected how academics and students treat him? “I haven’t a clue, I haven’t noticed it at all.” What about the cultish attention he attracts, such as the Blackburn band Tompaulin, and the puppet-critic Tom Tortoise on The Adam and Joe Show? “I don’t think about it. I just do the programme, yeah. It would be bad if you took yourself seriously.”

Paulin smiles often, particularly at himself, but his conversation about almost anything other than literature or Northern Ireland has to be coaxed. I try. What is Tom  Paulin’s own secret life like? “All I do is read books, really. I worry about that sometimes. I don’t seem to have a hobby or anything.” He does get out. “I work in the Bodleian a lot and I often meet friends there and go off for coffee and lunch.”

How about family life? Paulin’s wife is from Strabane, a member of Northern Ireland’s small Sikh community. They met as students at Hull University and have two sons Michael, 27, and Niall, 26. Why doesn’t any of that appear in his poems?

“I’ve not been able to manage the lyrical or the domestic much.” In poetry anyway. “I do most of the cooking. I’m kind of domestic, untidily so.”

Paulin was born in Leeds in 1949 into a middle class family that moved to Northern Ireland (his mother’s home) when he was four. What was his childhood like?

“There is a sort of extended family quality to Belfast. It was very stimulating growing up there, especially in the 1960s. My parents were Northern Ireland Labour Party people. We read The Guardian and The New Statesman, listened to the BBC. The house was full of books. We didn’t get a television until That Was The Week That Was started. There was nothing to do but read.”

When did the poetic urge strike? He becomes more animated. “I had a very good English teacher called Eric Brown. He bought in the record which had Robert Frost reading  After Apple Picking. I had a book called Modern Poets and Poetry, a very dear great aunt gave it to me when I was 16 or 17. I got interested in Frost’s use of the vernacular. He taught you to respect the way people around you spoke.”

I ask more about his parents.

“Well, my father was the headmaster of Annadale Grammar School and my mother was a doctor.” This is all he says at first, and what he says about his brothers has to be teased out.

“One brother is dead. I have one brother. The other died of cerebral palsy. We’d go and visit him and you’d feel sad for him because there was real intelligence, just buried very deep. He was my youngest brother. He died in 1974. It was a great sadness.”

In 1967, he began reading English at Hull. “It was a great shock coming to England. I found it very traumatic, just being in a different place. Everyone seemed very sophisticated.”

Even in Hull?

“Oh yeah,” he smiles. “Very intimidating. More confident, yeah.”

Paulin’s sentences often end with “yeah”, like a tutor’s approving tick. His voice is unhurried, his words considered with a poet’s discrimination, the syllables often stretching at the end of phrases for emphasis.

After Hull came a BLit at Lincoln College, Oxford. His poetry was encouraged by fellow student and poet Douglas Dunn but it was after Oxford that his literary career really began. “When I got a job in 1972 in Nottingham [as university lecturer], I started trying to write [poetry] seriously. I used to get up at seven o’clock and write for an hour before breakfast, then go and teach.” He stayed for 22 years, arriving back at Oxford in 1994.

Paulin has always provided his family with salaried stability but thinks slightly less of himself for it. “I always feel freelance writers are leading a heroic life. I think that is the real writer’s life. On the other hand, it’s good to have another job. It gives you something to do.” He smiles. “You meet people. And I love teaching. I’ve got lots of friends here.”

Another Oxford poet-academic, Craig Raine, has a work, Flying To Belfast, in The Secret Life of Poems. Did he discuss it with Raine?

“Not at all, not in the least, no. We fell out about my Faber Book of Political Verse in the 1980s.” The gist of the disagreement, he says, was that Raine objected to the inclusion of Milton in the book. “He said Milton wasn’t a political poet. Things were really wrecked by that.” But Paulin still included Raine’s poem in his new book?

“Oh indeed. Well, I admire the poem very much.”

Politics is never very far away with Paulin. His own are unaligned left. An opponent of the invasion of Iraq, he says, “I belong to the minority that wants a European superstate. I think it would redress the balance a bit, between America and the rest of the world.”

His political views have occasionally sent Paulin lurching into controversy. On Newsnight Review in January 2002, in a verbal tussle with Germaine Greer, he called the Bloody Sunday paratroopers ‘rotten racist bastards’. In April of that year, in an interview with Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, Paulin said Israel’s Brooklyn-born Jewish settlers ‘should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists.’ Paulin has said his words were distorted and has long attacked anti-Semitism, but there was a storm of letters in the press.

I ask him about the controversy. Arms and legs firmly crossed, he says, “Och, that was years ago, I’ve nothing to say about that.”

Is he sure?

“Och it’s so long ago,” he smiles.

What about his Bloody Sunday comments. Were they premeditated?

“No, it just came into my head. I used to be rather intemperate but that’s gone.” And of being part of Britain’s dissenting tradition, he later says, “I think I’ve had all my arguments.”

What caused this change? “I don’t know, I suppose, you know I’m nearly 60, maybe I’ve grown up.” He pauses, adds jovially, “Belatedly. I think it’s a phase you go through. Some longer than others.”

He sounds relieved that the phase is over. And indeed the controversial, vitriolic critic is at odds with Paulin in person, the family man who is friendly and thoughtful, even asking if I mind him smoking in his own home. It is when he perceives injustice, or empty or mean-minded work, that the lid flies off. Perhaps the key to Paulin is that he included Raine’s work in The Secret Life Of Poems despite their falling out: he is so besotted with language and culture it overrides many of the gripes and vanities that preoccupy most of us.

Paulin had put on boots for the photographs. They went well with his trousers and shirt. Does Giti chooses his clothes, as she does the furniture?

He smiles sheepishly. “Yeah.”

Otherwise, would he just put on anything?

“That’s right, yeah.”

12 January 2008

Magnus Mills, The Daily Telegraph

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I only write books as a sort of hobby, when I run out of money.”

Lunchtime at Café Express, York Way, King’s Cross. Stocky workmen in luminous jackets drink mugs of tea. A radio plays bouzouki music. In a corner, one of Britain’s most original novelists bends over pie, chips and peas on his break from driving the 390 bus.

Magnus Mills, 55, found fame as the busman whose first novel was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize. The Restraint Of Beasts was a comedy of manipulation and death among fence-builders. The similarly menacing, hilarious All Quiet On The Orient Express followed. Mills moved on to enigmatic allegories, like Explorers Of The New Century, but the concise prose, pared characterisation and Flann O’Brien-meets-Les Dawson humour remained.

His sixth novel, The Maintenance Of Headway, published this month, is a lighter, comedic parade of bus drivers trying to save minutes and inspectors slowing them down to “maintain headway”– keep buses equally spaced. It is a chance for Mills to set the record straight: hectic roads and inspectors delay buses, not drivers.

His plate empty, Mills talks. Why, I ask, doesn’t he write full-time?

“I don’t like it. You’re under obligation and have it hanging over you.”

He speaks deliberately, his London accent touched with Cumbria and Bristol. Why buses?

“I can’t really imagine doing another job. The hours are long but I’m lucky. Because I’m better off than most drivers I can swap and do short, early-morning duties.”

What do fellow drivers make of his writing? Mills stretches in his Metroline jacket, pale-eyed, tall and lanky. “They tend to forget. A couple of them have got my books but I don’t know if they’ve read them. One inspector read my last book and was quite interested.”

At the bus stop opposite Café Express, we await the 390 Mills will take over, drive to Archway, then across London to Notting Hill Gate. He holds his silver pocket watch in a long-fingered hand. The 390 pulls up. Mills smiles. “13.33, exactly on time.”

Mills drives well, gliding along pitted, narrow hill streets, easing into stops, finishing at Archway depot. He walks around the bus, checking, then fills the log card. We chat (“We’ve got four minutes”) before re-embarking. Mills notes the sagging driver’s seat. “The seats were much better on the Routemaster. I once wanted a chair to write in, so I measured the seat of the Routemaster.”

He squawks the alarm in the cab. Violent passengers are rare, but they can be unpleasant. Suddenly vulnerable, Mills says, “They say hurtful things.” What things? “Think of something hurtful and they’ve said it.”

Mills takes the wheel, gathering passengers: middle-aged shoppers; lads in polo shirts; a girl in a hijab, marshalling her sisters; a bald, goateed Dad; a man who asks, deadpan as a Mills character, if this bus emblazoned with Notting Hill Gate, is going to Notting Hill Gate.

The 390 crawls along Gower Street. A female, recorded announcement coos: “This bus terminates here.” Passengers fall silent. “Wrong announcement!” booms Mills. “The next bus stop is closed.”

That apart, Mills remains for passengers only a face filling the rear-view mirror like a publicity shot. After thronged Oxford Street, the 390 bounds along Bayswater Road to Notting Hill Gate, an unrestrained beast. Was headway maintained? Mills smiles. “Headway was maintained. The gaps between buses was about right.”

The next morning, Mills looks as at ease among the fine panelling and sash windows of Bloomsbury Publishing’s Soho Room, as in Café Express. He’d walked in from his Kentish Town home and leans back in his chair, eating pastries.

Mills is often portrayed as leaping, uneducated, from buses to Booker shortlist. The reality is more interesting, of someone deliberately leaving education. Born in Birmingham, his father was a polytechnic lecturer and although Mills failed the 11-plus, “I went to a secondary modern run like a grammar school, on the outskirts of Bristol.” At 16 he transferred to a comprehensive in Filton, then studied economics at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. “It was a proper degree, I got a 2:1.”

During summers he worked on a farm campsite in the Lake District. “I went on to do a masters degree at Warwick University, studying industrial relations. After 10 weeks, I realised I wasn’t interested in studying. I’d already got a taste for blue-collar work.”

He returned to the farm for three years then, after working for a fencing contractor, became self-employed. “I was working all over Cumbria and North Lancashire. I was married by then. We decided, big move, we’d move to London in 1986. For the change. I started on the buses and began submitting articles.”

He pauses, mouth full of pastry. “I had a little column in The Independent about buses but it only ran for a few weeks. I thought, I’ll write a book [The Restraint of Beasts]. I kept working on it, years and years, over and over. I found an agent, the best in London, Dave Miller. When I got the book placed at HarperCollins, they said, ‘You can’t pack the buses in’. I thought that was the whole idea. They said, ‘We’ll need you on the buses’ [for publicity].” So Mills stayed on, writing All Quiet On The Orient Express after hours, in just four months.

When The Restraint Of Beasts appeared, the Booker shortlisting, and a specious news story about Mills making £1 million from film rights, detonated double explosions of publicity.

“The garage was crawling with photographers, journalists. They stopped the bus I was driving: a car pulled out, a photographer jumped out.  I’d been concentrating on The Restraint Of Beasts and all the journalists were interested in was the buses. So after about four months, I packed the buses in. I decided, if I’m going to be a writer I better write another book. So I wrote Three To See The King, as a project.”

Project achieved, the ever-restless Mills got bored. Four years of van driving followed, and The Scheme For Full Employment, his comic fable of a revered, van-driving job-creation scheme. When his van job disappeared in cutbacks, the buses beckoned.

“One day I saw a bus and thought ‘Oh yes’. When I started at King’s Cross garage, it was like going home.”

That working life puts Mills outside the literary world. Is that intentional?

“I only write books as a sort of hobby, when I run out of money. I’ve got my wages but when you write a book you get more money.”

In those books, themes recur: Utopias collapsing; timid people tolerating bad things; persecution. Are these deliberate?

“No, themes just develop in the story. But they do seem to follow an orthodoxy: I like things to be slightly weird and unexplained. I can’t tell which bits are funny. I just put dry things in.”

His male characters are usually the butt of “dry things”. The women are often alluring, almost superior beings. Does he think that in life, or just his books?

He pauses. “The second one, otherwise I’ll be…” He laughs, mutters about the garage. “Put the second one.”

It’s men who dominate his list of literary heroes. “Aesop. Shakespeare. Henry Lawson: he’s fantastic, very blue collar. Jonathan Swift. Galton and Simpson. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast, fantastic. Harold Pinter, obviously. Orwell.”

There is little overt politics though, or religion, in Mills’s books.

“I’m not party political, but I’ve got my views. This country needs a leader to sort things out. The shower that we’ve got, unbelievable.” As for religion, “I think religion is a sign of weakness, human weakness. If God wants to strike me down he’d do it now, but he never does. Or she.”

Mills’s characters rarely have inner lives.

“That’s just how I write.” He adds, without rancour, “I think I’ll never be on the Booker Prize list again because my books don’t fit into that. There are no pages of inner reflection. I can’t be bothered with that.”

Does Mills actually want to write more?

“Not at the moment, but I suppose I will. I’m a bit lazy about writing. I spend hours listening to music, messing about with my plants. I’m teaching myself piano. When I’m writing, I love it. But I’ve got so many other things.”

The photographer arrives to shoot Mills on Oxford Street. Outside, the photographer strides ahead. Mills joke-jogs behind, following his own route.

11 August 2009

Don McCullin, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I should have gone barmy, if I’d been a more sophisticated or fragile human being. I wasn’t. I came from Finsbury Park.”

From Don McCullin’s terrace, the Somerset countryside falls away in pastures, deep lanes and thick woods. Low trees shade the garden’s tumbling lawns. A swing hangs from a branch. Wisteria, ivy and roses climb across his lichened stone house.

The scene is the antithesis of the images that made McCullin famous as a photographer, first on The Observer (1959-1965) and then The Sunday Times (1966-1984): a new Turkish-Cypriot bride resting her head on her murdered husband’s chest; a hunched American GI, shell-shocked eyes staring; a starving albino Biafran boy clutching an empty food tin.

McCullin appears at the back door, dips his head (“Anyone over 5ft 6in has to duck”), and leads me into his big kitchen. “Would you like tea?” he asks. He is relaxed and smiling, recognisably the dashing photographer of the 1960s.

McCullin made his name with foreign assignments but his new book, In England, collects photographs of English life between 1958 and 2007: tramps and Ascot racegoers, fieldscapes and urban trauma, Shiite processions and Blackpool promenaders. Characteristically, they capture society’s extremes. Where, I ask, is the big swathe of middle England?

He smiles. “I’d need another lifetime to get those in the middle,” he says, “and would they want me?”

Born in 1935, McCullin’s own origins in North London’s Finsbury Park help explain his choice of subjects. His family were poor and he remembers the weekly trips to the pawn shop as “humiliating”. That hardship gave him resilience but “Finsbury Park, despite what it did for me, was a hellhole really”.

“My mother was tough,” he laughs. “You knew what day it was when she clouted you. My father was a very sweet man. My mother did my father’s hitting. Everyone was hitting me when I was a kid.” This included the teachers at the dyslexic McCullin’s local secondary modern.

His drawing skills won him a scholarship to Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts. But that ended when his asthmatic father died and, at 15, McCullin began working on the buffet cars of LMS Railways. The death of his father, a gentle presence in a hard world, devastated McCullin. “I was pretty pissed off. I went round being evil. The boys I grew up with were evil too. They’d go to the cinema and break all the seats. They’d pee on the floor rather than leave their seats.”

National Service in the RAF kept him out of trouble, though dyslexia kept the artistically-inclined McCullin from becoming an RAF photographer (he failed the trade exam). Undeterred, he bought his first camera, a new, £30 Rolleicord. Once back home and short of cash, he pawned it. Happily for photography, his tough mother, in an unexpected act of compassion, took pity and redeemed it with her own money.

McCullin began photographing Finsbury Park life, including friends in a gang, the Guvnors, posing on an old bomb site. A colleague at the Mayfair animation company where McCullin worked encouraged him to show them to The Observer and, on February 15 1959, they were printed. Overnight, a career was born.

The suddenness of that must have been extraordinary, I say.

“It was, because The Observer gave me 50 quid. The next Monday, people found out who I was and I was offered every job in England. That little thing inside me knew this was the only hope of having a life.”

In 1961, when the Berlin Wall started going up, McCullin, now married to childhood sweetheart Christine, bought a plane ticket and, without a commission, “started taking simple pictures of the Americans standing off with the Russians and East Germans. I felt, ‘This is it, this is what I’m meant to be doing’. The Observer used them big and I won some press award.” (Best Series, British Press Awards.)

“The next step was the civil war in Cyprus, then it was the Congo, then it was Vietnam, then I really got on the fast conveyor belt of troubleshooting.” That included Lebanon, Cambodia, India, Nigeria, Israel, Jordan (he has worked in 120 countries).

Why did he concentrate on war?

“Because I thought it would increase my chances of recognition. Which is a terrible thing to admit. In a way I was hoping to inherit the mantle of Robert Capa.”

Did he attain it?

He smiles. “Not necessarily, no. That would be rather foolish [to claim]. I said once ‘I’m going to be the best war photographer’. What a stupid thing to say. It’s like saying I’m going to be the best assassin.”

McCullin admits he became addicted to the dangers of war. Was he testing his luck?

“In a way. I would run across where snipers were killing people. I was looking for the edge. Not only the edge in photography but the edge in how far I could push me. I don’t know. It was a kind of weird vanity that I was trying to prove something. I had to try and overcome fear.”

Sometimes fear won. “I used to lose it every two years. I would have an experience so frightening, I would just fall apart for a day, or a few days.”

What he calls his “John Wayne” attitude changed in Biafra in 1969. “I didn’t understand the compassion bit until I got there. I was slightly blinkered until I walked into the Biafran War and [saw] the children dying on their legs.”

What McCullin saw in wars and famine gave him nightmares for many years. He experienced “the awful psychology of being a photographer who thought in the beginning it was going to be a really wonderful life”.

“I still carry a huge share of guilt about surviving,” he says. But he also says: “I should have gone barmy, if I’d been a more sophisticated or fragile human being. I wasn’t. I came from Finsbury Park. I’ve always had a bit of toughness to carry me through.”

In his 1990 autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour, McCullin called war “an abhorrence I could not bring myself to leave”. Why? “Once you got that adrenaline going, your simple family life in Hampstead Garden Suburb seemed rather dull. It is a shameful thing to say. One sacrificed that family life for the next dose of adrenaline.”

McCullin grew apart from Christine. In 1982, he left her and their children, Paul, Jessica and Alexander, for the models’ agent Laraine Ashton, with whom he had a son, Claude. Christine died of cancer seven years later, on the morning of Paul’s wedding.

As we talk at the broad kitchen table, McCullin, begins to look his 72 years. He speaks steadily in a classless, slightly gravelly voice but his intense blue eyes are watery.

“I’ve never got over it really. What I did was particularly wrong against the person who supported me so much. That morning when they were carrying her body down,” his voice trembles, “it was almost like the day in Cyprus [the photograph of the new Turkish-Cypriot bride] and all the wedding presents that had been smashed.”

Later in 1982, McCullin moved to Somerset, where classical music (“it makes you feel there is hope”) and landscape photography helped exorcise the ghost of war. “I erase it by doing landscapes and printing in my darkroom. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t killing those people. I wasn’t torturing those people”.

The echoes persist: why does he print his landscapes so dark? “It’s the darkness of war, the darkness of memory.”

After leaving The Sunday Times, and with his old and new families to support, he took his first advertising commissions. McCullin and Ashton split shortly after Christine’s death and his 1995 marriage to American photographer Marilyn Bridges was short-lived. He seems finally to have found peace with his third wife Catherine Fairweather (travel editor of Harpers & Queen) and their son Max who, aged four, is 40 years younger than half-brother Paul.

The father of five lifts In England from the kitchen table and opens it. Was he, particularly in the often raw, urban photographs from the 1970s, looking for the worst of the country? “Yeah. I’m not going to argue with that. I always went to Aldgate [in East London, home then to many down and outs]. It was like, in a way, hunting.” Hunting for? “Unacceptable images. People in the fourth richest country in the world looking for discarded food in Spitalfields Market.”

He leafs through, finds a picture of Jean, who he found “under the arches at Liverpool Street Station”. He helped find her a hostel. McCullin says, forcefully, he has done bad things. But he has also done “compassionate bits”, helping the war wounded and famine victims.

He picks out a funny shot of a Bradford matriarch, stern as granite, holding a spade and says: “That is one of my favourite pictures.”

He believes England has improved but is angered by freedoms being “snipped at” and people being left behind as affluence grows. He guiltily admits to not having voted for 10 years. (It was for the Liberal Democrats.) As for the “evil” old Finsbury Park boys, “they have a reunion, every year, in the Conservative Club. One of them said to me, because opposite the club is the [Finsbury Park] mosque, ‘Do you know what, Donald, we wouldn’t have tolerated that mosque. We’d have torched it in our day.’” McCullin goes to the reunions out of loyalty. “I don’t go to ridicule, I go to…” He is embarrassed. “They think I’m the made-good boy.”

Isn’t he? He won’t admit it, despite decades of accolades. These include his 1965 World Press Photographer Award, the rare honour for a living photographer of a Victoria and Albert Museum retrospective (in 1980) and, in 1993, the prestigious Dr Erich Salomon Award for lifetime achievement in photojournalism. The night before we meet, he received the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal at the society’s annual awards. Still, he says, awards “almost make me feel uncomfortable”.

The exception was his 1993 CBE. “I kind of slightly levitated in my office. I felt very emotional because I felt my dad would have been really pleased. Whatever I did in life, one of the main reasons was I wanted to bring respectability to my father’s name. It’s not a twisted thing to tell you but I wanted to make my name, my father’s name, mean something.”

Although McCullin is working on his seventeenth book – on Roman ruins in North Africa and the Middle East – he says, without false modesty: “I still approach my life as a photographer as a student because I know you learn every time you pick up a camera.” He never picks up a digital one (“I don’t want to look at a screen, I want to look at the world”) and while he admires Sebastião Salgado, “my heroes go back, they are not contemporary. I like the ancient works of Roger Fenton, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen.”

His recent photojournalism includes projects on Darfur and Aids in Africa. It can still be hard controlling his emotions. “There are children’s homes in Cape Town full of dying children with their faces covered in tumours. So there is the old alarm clock ringing and you think ‘What am I doing these things for?’”

“I do it because I can make people look at my work. Instead of rejecting it, I can bring them in. It’s a matter of dignity and timing and respect. So [the subject’s] dignity comes out loud and clear and it allows you [the viewer] to assert your compassion. I’m nothing really. Just a photographer. A pigeon that carries the message. Do you want another cup of tea?”

2 November 2007

Tariq Ramadan, The Times

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I am too much a Westerner for Muslims, and too much a Muslim for Westerners.”

If the author, academic and polemicist Tariq Ramadan is the subversive some claim, he does not live deep under cover. His home is an amiable semi on a suburban street with a green and pleasant hillock at one end.

He was refused entry to France in 1995 (later rescinded) and to the US in 2004 (still in place) for alleged links to Islam’s dangerous fringe. Ramadan denies those links but as the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has a radical heritage. And the allegations did not deter Tony Blair, who consulted him after 7/7, or Time magazine, which listed him as one of its 100 innovators of the new century for advocating an integrated, Europeanised Islam.

Tall, slim and welcoming in a grey suit and furry white Radisson SAS slippers, Ramadan leads me into his rug-plotted sitting room. We sit, a bowl of mini rolls and cookies before us on a brass oriental table.

To a curious non-Muslim, his new book, The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad, is fascinating. Punctuated by spiritual reflections, it tells Muhammad’s life from orphaned childhood through the Revelation of the Koranic verses – which, Muslims believe, Muhammad were given by the Archangel Gabriel – to his death, aged 63, with Islam dominant across Arabia.

What are Ramadan’s sources for the Hadith (sayings and stories of Muhammad)?

Ramadan sits back, his mild voice accented by French and Arabic: “During the first years the Prophet was saying, ‘Keep the Hadith by heart but write the Koran on anything to hand’. Then, at the end of a few years, people were starting to write the Hadith. Checking the authenticity came later, after 50, 60 or 100 years.”

In one cheering Hadith, Muhammad chastises followers for copying his demanding prayer routine. “Woe to those who exaggerate [who are too strict],” he said. As only the Prophet’s wives had to wear the niqab, do niqab-wearers in the West, free of cultural pressure, “exaggerate”?

“Some scholars say, ‘His wives are your example, so you have to follow them’. But for the majority of scholars the prescription is not for [covering] the face. So yes, they are exaggerating, they are taking something which is not the rule as a prescription.”

Perhaps for some it is just a form of adolescent rebellion?

“It happens, that is for sure. When you are dealing with this you have to be careful. If you are coming with a strict ‘No’ it’s exactly what they want. So don’t be harsh at the beginning, because you can push them to isolate themselves.”

Ramadan’s book raises awkward issues, such as Muhammad marrying Aishah when she was six. The marriage was not consummated for “several years”. Ramadan feels this means when she reached puberty. “These are facts to be taken into account in the context of the Arabian Peninsula. At that time it was normal. Muslims should not deny this.”

The book also describes the battles of Muhammad’s followers against neighbouring tribes. What about the perception that Islam’s spread was conversion at sword-point? Ramadan argues that before Muhammad’s death, the fighting was always defensive (including the protection of a Jewish and a Christian tribe). But not so after it.

“This idea that everything was done by peace or everything was done by sword is wrong. In some situations you had Muslims saying, ‘You don’t want to listen to the message? We are coming to fight’. ”

The Messenger lays out Muhammad’s strict rules of war, including the protection of civilians. What are people like the 7/7 terrorists thinking of?

“Two things. The first is they have a very superficial knowledge of the ethics of war and conflict in Islam. And the second, the mindset, which is Us versus Them. Like this guy Mohammad [Sidique Khan, one of the 7/7 bombers] in the video saying, ‘You are killing us there, so we are killing you here’. Umma [the totality of Muslims] is a spiritual community based on principle, not a blind support of my people against your people.”

Is The Messenger the case against extremism? “It is not only against the extremists, it is also against the literalist reading, the cultural reading. Let us come to the essentials, and out of this let us come up with contemporary spiritual lessons.”

Ramadan calls himself a Salafi reformist. What is that? “People who are coming back to the sources, to the first generation [of Islam] are Salafi. There is the literalist Salafi, what we call the Wahhabi. My aim as a Salafi reformist is to come back to the source, to find the spirit, the objectives [of Muhammad’s teaching]. I don’t want the literalists to hijack the concept of Salafism. For example, you have literalists saying music is haram [forbidden]. And I say that’s wrong, look at the Prophet, what he says.”

His stance gets him into trouble. “I was in Mauritius last year and the mufti said, ‘Tariq Ramadan is a kafir’. He means an infidel, apostate.” He finds himself, “too much a Westerner for Muslims and too much a Muslim for Westerners”.

Ramadan certainly has a problem with Western “neoliberal economics”, which he considers opposed to Islamic values. But when some of my questions lead him into politics, the crisp, illuminating language of The Messenger is replaced by woollier phrases about “structural discrimination” and claims about “official discourse”, which suggest that all politicians and media speak as one. Of today’s political-religious Muslim Brotherhood he says: “I disagree with them but . . . as long as they are respecting the rule of law, let them speak.”

Perhaps his critics suspect that, like Wahhabis, he wants an all-Islamic world, but is more subtle and patient about it? He laughs, lists Christian friends and says, “They are just projecting their own fears. I don’t have this passion for conversion. Whatever you believe, you have values. Just be the witness of your values in your life.”

We have run over time. He inscribes my copy of The Messenger: “May the light be always with you and protect you” – the English words styled with the flourishes of Arabic calligraphy.

5 May 2007

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