Ian Jack - The SRB Interview
- Category: Volume 5 Issue 3 2009
- Published on Wednesday, 14 October 2009 21:43
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Volume 5 Issue 4
Born in 1945, Ian Jack spent his childhood in Lancashire, where his father had moved in search of employment, and North Queensferry. The boats he watched as a child sail the Firth of Forth sparked a life-long passion; he also has an equally enduring interest in railways, and he writes about both forms of transport in his new collection of essays, The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain. By his teens, Jack wanted to be a journalist, and secured spells with the Glasgow Herald and the Scottish Daily Express before moving to the Sunday Times in 1970. Hired as a sub-editor, he was encouraged to write, and eventually spent some years as a foreign correspondent in India. In 1991, he was one of the co-founders of the Independent On Sunday. He edited the IoS until 1995, when he left to become the editor of Granta, his reign at the literary magazine lasting until 2007. Currently, he can be found each Saturday in the Guardian, where he writes a column. On a grey Sunday in July, Colin Waters took the ferry from Wemyss Bay to Bute to meet him. Jack has a house in Rothesay where he retreats when he needs a break from London, his home. In Rothesay, Jack preserves his father’s bookcase, down to the order the books were in on the shelves when he inherited it; he writes about the bookcase in the new collection. Beneath vintage posters advertising the halcyon days of the train, Jack spoke about being British, his passion for the past, and the trials of an editor.
Scottish Review Of Books: Your new collection of essays is called The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain. Initially, the ‘formerly’ aspect of the title appears to refer to Britain itself, now that we live in an era of devolution. However, as the book goes on, what appears to be firmly part of the past isn’t so much Britain as its greatness, in which case the title, and the tenor of the majority of the essays, is elegiac.
Ian Jack: I grew up with the effects of the nineteenth century all around me, as they were for many of my generation, especially in the north of Britain where the world’s first industrial nation had been created. I was born in 1945 and almost as far back as I can remember people have been wondering about Britain’s role in the world. I feel that I’ve lived with a continual sense of postponement – of a national day of reckoning maybe. All kinds of prospects have been held out. I remember the Coronation in 1953 and watching a film at the Palace Kinema in Rosyth about the conquest of Everest: they were meant to herald something called the New Elizabethan Age. In the Sixties, you had Harold Wilson talking about ‘the white heat of technology’. In the Seventies and Eighties, it was North Sea oil. More recently, we were meant to be world leaders in the alchemical processes of financial capitalism. They’ve all had their brief run as – to use marketing language – brands and mission statements, but none of them has settled anything. Our post-industrial economy looks shakier than ever and our politics just as feeble and hubristic. Maybe it’s wrong of countries to imagine a manifest destiny for themselves – just so much blarney – but right now I think we’re experiencing another great spasm of self-doubt, wondering what sort of country we should be. Or can be. Fifty years ago Dean Acheson defined Britain as a country that had lost an empire but had yet to find a role. It’s a cliché, but it still seems distressingly true.
SRB: It’s a mark of how enduring the imperial mindset is in Britain that its echoes can still be heard. It affects people who weren’t even born when the country surrendered its last colony. When will these echoes ever die down? Are we in a transitional phase?
IJ: When Tony Blair came to power, Joe Klein wrote a New Yorker piece in which he described him as Britain’s first post-imperial Prime Minister. I think I know what he meant – that Thatcher and even Major had political attitudes coloured by childhood memories of the empire and the Second World War, and that the Tory party was culturally nostagic. But today, Klein’s assessment looks quite wrong. Blair’s record in military adventures would stand comparison with any Victorian prime minister’s. Gordon Brown and David Miliband are still too keen to chide other countries for their moral failings. They need to pipe down. We’re in a motes-and-beams situation. I consider myself quite patriotic and I like a lot of things about Britain. But we need to revise our idea that this country is so singularly blessed that it can moralise and posture about places it considers less fortunate than itself. Too many people here haven’t understood Britain’s changed position in the world. The changes are huge. What’s left of our steel industry is owned by an Indian company run out of Mumbai. It’s the same story with cars – the same Mumbai company owns Range Rover and Jaguar. Thirty years ago, you could visit a town in the Indian coal belt and meet British engineers who were there to help them modernise the mines. The words ‘post-colonial’ can’t even begin to describe what’s happened since. There’s been a complete reversal in the relationship, a great shift – another cliché – in the tectonic plates of the world economy. I think we – I’m including myself here – are still dazed by this shift and haven’t absorbed the likely consequences. It means much, much more than the so-called benefits of cheap goods from China.
SRB: In one of your Guardian columns, you tried to define your sense of Britishness: “Like Gordon Brown, I subscribe to the idea of a British identity as well as, in both our cases, to a Scottish one. Unlike Gordon Brown, I've never tried to parse this identity in the abstractions of ‘values’ – show me a modern European state that doesn't claim liberty somewhere on its letter-head – but rather in the specifics of the things I grew up with: the BBC, the Royal Navy, the Beano, and a thousand other British bits and pieces that came out of centuries of shared history and aren’t exclusively English, Welsh or Scottish.” This is nationalism as nostalgia, isn’t it? If it is, perhaps that’s why Great Britain is splitting up now; while there is no lack of nostalgia today, it’s for pop songs and old sweets and advert jingles from the 1980s, it’s not for shared institutions or customs or values.
IJ: I think I could defend my notion of nationalism. I could mention examples of things that are current and worth defending as British, such as the BBC. I think there is a British quality about people that isn’t simply that we all remember Spangles or the Beano. There’s more to it – a stronger cement. I don’t sense when I cross the border at Berwick that I’m entering a different civilisation as I would if I crossed the Channel to France. There is a shared sense of values, not all of them good; we have a shared liking for a certain kind of tabloid newspaper, for example, and spending lots of borrowed money. A lot of this sense of Britishness arises from quite small, inconsequential things. Orwell always confused Englishness with Britishness, at least until he did his time on Jura, which wasn’t untypical of an English person of his time, or, sadly, even now. Britishness to him meant many small things – milk on the doorstep in the morning, red postboxes – and one rather big and almost mystical thing, the quality he called ‘decency’. Now Orwell was a suberb writer, probably the best Britain produced in the twentieth century if you exclude one or two poets and novelists. But even he could-n’t find a grand national statement to describe what Gor-don Brown always insists on calling ‘British values’. Nothing like ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ or even ‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us’. So he had to retreat to little things drawn from everyday life, which are still current in Britain, just. If he couldn’t manage it, I certainly can’t. All I’d say is a national identity that’s loose, capacious, troubled and sometimes ungraspable may not be a bad one to have. It allows people in. I wouldn’t want to be in a country that remembered the date 1314 all the time.
SRB: Is this a generational thing? Do young people share the same anxiety you have about national identity. You write a bit about your children in The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain; what do they think?
IJ: My son is fifteen and my daughter seventeen. We don’t often talk about questions of national identity – who we imagine we are comes from many more things than passports – but I once asked my son ‘English, Scottish or British?’ and he said ‘British’, which was probably rational of him as his mother comes from Newcastle and we live in London. I like to think I wouldn’t have minded what he said. I’ve never been the kind of football supporter who loves to see England lose or taken umbrage – oh, the horror! – when I’ve been identified abroad as English. But you may be right about the generational aspect. The particular thing that I’m thinking of right now is going to the cinema as a child and watching films such Above Us The Waves and The Cruel Sea, films where seamen delivered mugs of cocoa to officers on the bridge. That now seems an aeon away. When I was at school in Dunfermline one of my chums was a Scottish nationalist – Black Watch kilt and a little lion rampant pinned to his lapel – but they were thin on the ground. Scottish nationalism appeared to be a comic, irrational idea, founded on the flawed romances of tartanry and the Jacobite cause and stuff that had no relevance to the way we lived. Maybe my black and white films could be seen in the same kind of way, as a romantic fiction that is to British nationalism what Bonnie Prince Charlie is – or was – to Scottish nationalism. I prefer Jack Hawkins to the Bonnie Prince though. What was it that Billy Connolly said about him? ‘The only historical character to be named after three separate sheepdogs’.
SRB: You write in one essay about “the old Scottish problem of minds held in thrall to their childhoods and the sentimentalisation of the past”. Is that something you feel you have to guard yourself from?
IJ: It is, though you’d have to say that in the age of Irvine Welsh it doesn’t appear to be the danger it once was. Cold-eyed brutalism is in and sentiment is very unfashionable. Walter Scott was terribly sentimental, as was Stevenson: lots of love for childhood landscapes and couthy old Scottish ways. I’d say that, though by no means unknown in England – think of Laurie Lee in the Cotswolds – this particular kind of home-and-hearth sentimentality has stronger roots north of the border. My mother used to give me an annual subscription to the Scots Magazine, and I liked its interesting little articles which evoked Blairgowrie in 1933 and the last time Loch Leven iced over. It had a lot of writers being fond; there was a lot of fondness. As for me, I’m well aware of the danger of living too much of my life in the past – even as a teenager I spent probably too much time in that misty location. A book that made a huge impression on me when I was thirteen or so was The Firth of Clyde by George Blake, a writer who’s little noticed now but who was quite a big figure in Scottish journalism and letters in the 1930s and 40s. Blake’s book gave a vivid sense of what the Clyde was like in its heyday as a pleasure ground before 1914. At the time – this would be the late 1950s – I was enthralled by the Clyde and its ships and even took out junior membership of the Clyde River Steamer Club, which would organise cruises of cultists to abandoned piers up and down the firth. Blake showed me how life had been before The Fall, if you like, and that now we were living among the ruins. Because I was a late child I was always listening to my parents and relations describing life 40 and 50 years before, so there was an early tendency towards this kind of Golden Ageism. It isn’t harmful, even to writing, so long as you recognise it in yourself and remember that Golden Ages are often tin underneath. Many writers in one way or another are fixated by the past, which is an easier thing to get a handle on than the present, and it’s been going on a long time. I like the thing Tom Nairn said about Walter Scott, that he wasn’t a romantic but what Nairn called a ‘valedictory realist’ who in a rapidly industrialising nation felt the need to depict a way of living – rural, feudal, more distinctly Scottish – that had so recently disappeared.
SRB: The central piece in The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain perhaps is ‘The 12.10 To Leeds’, your investigation of the Hatfield rail disaster in 2000. It seemed to me that this train derailment which took place a decade ago, and which you wrote about in 2002, has become by 2009 a metaphor for Britain. The way in which the running of the railways was split up amongst several companies prefigures Britain’s economic or social fragmentation.
IJ: That’s an interesting thought but I can’t be sure I had it at the time. What I was really angry about was the way in which stubborn political ideology and professional greed, in terms of the city lawyers and consultants who made piles of money out of the railway privatisation, had erected this absurd and unworkable system. I felt people had died because of ideological whimsy and political incompetence. But in fact I was quite nervous about writing the piece for Granta. First, I was the editor and I don’t think it’s a good idea for editors to take up too much space in their own publications, though I’ve done it a few times since. Second, I didn’t know if a literary magazine was the right place for a piece that went into technical explanation – ‘gauge corner cracking’ might not be a phrase (or a diagram) you’d expect to find there. Granta had a fine tradition of what Americans call ‘long-form’ or ‘literary’ reporting, but this I thought might be pushing the boundaries of the possible. Ryszard Kapuscinki wrote about wars and coups, not inquiring reports into railway crashes. So I was nervous. But I also felt there should be nothing Granta couldn’t tackle, so why not? It must have succeeded to some extent because it inspired a play from David Hare [The Permanent Way, 2004].
SRB: What was it like seeing that?
IJ: It was fun. There’s a character in it called Scottish Literary Editor who smokes Marlboro Lights – as I did in those days – and gets to say profound and melancholic things.
SRB: Where does your fascination with boats and trains grow from? Is this a Scottish thing? A masculine thing?
IJ: Freud had something to say about men, for it is usually men, who are interested in railway trains, some explanation about sexual repression finding its outlet in the sight of pistons. That only works with steam locomotives, so presumably it no longer applies. My own interest can be explained more prosaically. My brother, who’s eleven years older than me, got addicted to trains as a boyish hobby during the war and took me as a child on his train-spotting trips to locomotive sheds and railway cuttings. He’s a proper railway historian now – if you want to know anything about the London and North Western Railway (Southern Section) he’s your man. My own interest in railways is milder, rather less than it is in boats, maybe because I discovered boats for myself. Boats are different. I grew up on the Firth of Forth at North Queensferry and could see the Royal Navy from our kitchen window. To be interested in what moved around you didn’t seem eccentric – ships and locomotives can be beautiful things and railways and steam navigation remain Britain’s greatest technical contributions to the history of the world. Still, I rather hate the fact that my gentle and sporadic enthusiasms now have words like ‘anorak’ and ‘spotter’ flung at them. You won’t find me at the end of a Waverley platform with a ballpoint in my hand.
SRB: I wonder if we can talk about your upbringing. In many ways, as gathered from the new book, it seems typically Scottish of time and background, excepting of course you spent a period of it in England.
IJ: My parents moved down to Lancashire from Fife just after they married in 1930 and we moved back when I was seven, in 1952. I don’t know how typical my upbringing was, but probably quite typical of a self-improving working-class family. My dad was keen on reading, so we had Dickens and HG Wells and Burns in the house, though for a long time none of them seemed as exciting to me as the Hotspur or the Wizard. My brother was a bigger influence – he was always buying Penguin paperbacks and it was through him that I first read writers like Zola, Arnold Ben-nett, Grassic Gibbon, Kingsley Amis and John Braine. Nineteenth-century realism made a big impression on me as a teenager. I didn’t understand much about style or character or plot or theme: I think what interested me was that books told you about places, and – in the case of the new English writers like Sillitoe and Braine – about kinds of people similar to those you knew. I was lucky; at high school in Dunfermline I had a young teacher from Leith, Miss McCoombes, who encouraged me to write. One week she asked us to write an essay on a building – any building – and I wrote about my auntie’s tenement in Port Glasgow, mainly because I’d been steeping myself in gritty northern realism. It was read out in front of the class – archetypal story, this – and she said I should write more, so I did. I wrote for the school magazine. I remember asking her, ‘How do I get to be Kenneth Tynan?’ because I was reading my brother’s copy of the Observer by this stage. She said it might be difficult to become Ken Tynan: true enough. It was an exciting time of discovery. I’d go off on Saturday afternoons to the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh or Macpherson’s bookshop in Dunfermline. No one was telling me what to read, so my reading was eclectic, as it has continued to be. Beyond Miss McCoombes’ Higher English class I’ve never done an English course in my life, so I’ve read widely and not too well-ly; there are many books that I regret not having read. After I left school, I worked in Dunfermline public library and then went off to do a library course at the Scottish College of Commerce for a couple of years. Really, though, I wanted to be a journalist and eventually – there were a few unsuccessful applications – I got hired as a trainee by the [Glasgow] Herald, which sent me off to learn my trade at a couple of local weeklies in Lanarkshire. After that came the Scottish Daily Express, which in the 1960s was Scotland’s biggest selling newspaper and utterly convinced of its own importance. In the office the saying was that if a trawler went down, the Express would have more planes in the air than the RAF.
SRB: And after the Express, you moved to The Sunday Times?
IJ: Yes, in 1970. I became a deputy chief sub-editor – that’s a long list of moderating words before editor, isn’t it? I was encouraged to write, so I started doing bits and pieces. I had a sabbatical after six years and went to India, where I’d always wanted to go, and from there wrote articles for the magazine. Mrs Gandhi ’s Emergency was in force but shortly before I was due to come home she called an election and the paper asked me to stay on and cover it. That’s when I started to get to know India – I lived there on and off for the next twelve, thirteen years.
SRB: I wonder if we might talk about the generation of newspapermen who were pre-eminent when you first entered the trade, men like James Cameron and the McIllvanneys, who wrote for a mass audience but had ambitions for the quality of their writing too. Were you influenced? What did you learn from studying them?
IJ: When James Cameron produced his first volume of autobiography, Point Of Departure, I was immensely tickled to learn that he too had been a sub-editor at the Scottish Daily Express. He was very amusing about the job; he talked about the boredom of writing headlines such as ‘Stabbing Affray in Renfrew Street’. I liked his book – it showed you that being a journalist didn’t prevent you from writing in a more thoughtful and intimate way. About the same time I discovered other writers – V.S. Naipaul, V.S. Pritchett, Norman Lewis – whose non-fiction work seemed to me to be just as rewarding as any novel. Then there came that little wave of travel writing in the mid-1970s led by Theroux and Chatwin, and that was inspiring, too. So I tried to make my own stuff a little more ambitious, starting with a series of journeys around Britain that I made for the Sunday Times magazine in the early Eighties. It’s been done a lot since, but it was relatively original then. It seemed to work. Readers, at least, were kind about it. Looking back, I’m appalled at my own insularity and how much I blundered about in the dark – I’d never read the New Yorker, for instance, and knew very little about the contemporary Americans other than a book or two by Updike. English writing was beginning to draw a lot of its energy and ideas from across the Atlantic, but I was still in love with V.S. Pritchett. When I came to write the little memoir about my father that begins my first collection of pieces, Before The Oil Ran Out, I don’t think I’d heard the word ‘memoir’ and I’d no model to work from. Now you can’t spit without hitting a memoir, usually a ‘misery memoir’. The idea that your life had to be problematic to be worth describing reached a funny moment in Granta one week when an American woman whose name I can’t recall suggested she wrote a piece about being an alcoholic; we’d already run a piece by her about being a mistress. I asked her how much she drank; a bottle of white wine a day, she said. Dearie me, I replied, over here that wouldn’t get you through a one-course lunch.
SRB: Given how busy your career in newspapers and then with Granta has been, do you have regrets you didn’t have more time perhaps to give over to writing books and projects of your own choice?
IJ: Yes. There’s a piece in the new book, ‘Serampur’, that was to be the beginning of a book about the industrial revolution in India and Britain, particularly Scotland – not necessarily a book about the technology, but about society and how India and Britain had changed each other. I’d written 40,000 words when the person from Porlock knocked on the door in the shape of the Independent, which wanted someone to help plan and launch the paper that became the Independent on Sunday. Soon after, my wife and I separated and then divorced. My wife was from Calcutta and the book seemed to belong to that part of my life. So it never got finished, which is a shame but there we are.
SRB: What led to your move to Granta?
IJ: I’d edited the IoS for four years and been to one too many budget meetings. Bill [Buford, Granta’s editor] had left Granta to go the New Yorker. I’d written for Granta quite a bit. There was a job to do there. It seemed attractive. I met the owner, Rea Hederman, who was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and I applied for the job. I didn’t go in there with any great hunger for radical change. Although Bill and I are very different people, I think we agreed mainly on what we liked in writing. So at first I did little to change the magazine and I felt my way into the job. I was interested in long-form reporting, and memoir, which I’d done a little of myself, and travel accounts. I didn’t know much about editing fiction, to be honest, and I needed to learn a lot about how fiction worked. The thing that pleased me most, the thing I want to appear on my Granta gravestone, is something I read in the Observer about Granta having its ‘face pressed against the window, determined to witness the world’. I thought, yes, that’s really what the magazine is best at doing, ‘narrative realism’ for lack of a better phrase, whether it be in fiction or non-fiction.
SRB: Could we talk about some of the writers you discovered or nurtured at Granta?
IJ: Part of Granta’s mythology is that it was always discovering writers. Finding genius on the slush pile. I don’t know if that’s true. What’s truer is that we brought public attention to many good writers and helped establish or reestablish their reputations. In my time, Diana Athill was one, the late Simon Gray another, and Janet Malcolm a third. Goodness me, a list of rather old people. There were many younger ones, too – Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, Blake Morrison, Graham Swift, Jamie Buchan. But these lists are invidious because they tend to exclude less successful writers whose pieces were a joy to publish – and needed publishing. People always mention the Best Young British and Best of Young American Novelists issues, one of each every ten years, but they were really the magazine’s least typical. Wall-to-wall fiction – you just had to pray that the nominated writers had something good and unpublished in their locker. They brought Granta lots of useful publicity – the media love lists – and I like to think they also offered a useful snapshot of the most interesting fiction in each generation.
SRB: I don’t mean this in a slighting sense, but Granta does do it on the slimmest of evidence. Often a writer makes the list on the basis of one book; sometimes, only a clutch of short stories.
IJ: You’re right. Deciding which writers show most promise can depend on nothing more than a hunch. There have been mistakes. It wouldn’t be good to mention names. But if you look back at the lists, ’83, ’93, and ’03, well, the ’83 list is the best because most of the people featured are still well known today. That was less true of the ’93 list, and even less true of the ’03 list – so far. It can be a terrible distinction to have inflicted on you. Louis de Bernieres wrote – though I find this hard to believe – that after he was nominated for the Granta list, writing for him became like standing naked on a plinth on Trafalgar Square and trying to get an erection.
SRB: And yet he still went on to write Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
IJ: No, he’d already had that erection.
SRB: As editor, how do you exercise judgement? By which I mean to say, should an editor allow a magazine to become the embodiment of his taste? Or should he be more wary? Is it possible or desirable to personally not like a piece but still recognise it might have something worth running?
IJ: That’s the trickiest part of editing. Maybe in a way that’s why I eventually left. I couldn’t go on inflicting my taste on the magazine, not because it was morally wrong, but because I worried that I might begin to bore readers – possibly including myself – with my own judgments. I made what you might decide were mistakes – all editors do. Mistakes in that you rejected something that then became very successful. A good example was Jonathan Safran Foer. He submitted an early bit of his book, Everything Is Illuminated. My very good deputy Sophie Harrison said it was funny. And I read it and I didn’t think it was funny, I thought it was rather puerile and smarty-boots. That was a mistake. Plenty of other people in the world of publishing didn’t think it was puerile, they thought it was a dazzling achievement. I must have done that more than once. Sometimes it went the other way. I’d indulge something because it was set in Port Glasgow. You can never be sure. My own taste is such that if Finnegans Wake had turned up at Granta, it would have been returned by way of the next post. ‘Dear Mr Joyce, while I found many things to enjoy in your manuscript I regret to say that it is not for us.’ I recognised something in myself that was quite conservative and strongly disposed towards clarity. Thomas Pynchon, I can’t get on with him, but I can get on with Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Updike, writers to whom labels like ‘post-modern’ can never be attached. It’s always difficult to delegate your taste. I’d listen to others in the office – and I was blessed with fine colleagues – but you really have to like something personally to publish it effectively.
SRB: How closely did you get involved with the covers? They had a visual flair that was part of Granta’s identity. I remember the cover to the ‘Confessions of a Middle Aged Ecstasy Eater’.
IJ: Do you? It’s probably the one piece I regret publishing – the cover was the best thing about it. This is an unhappy story that demonstrates the dangers of disobeying your tastes in writing. The piece came from the Wylie Agency, who made a great fuss about the need to keep the author’s identity a secret – I was told he was well known. I read it, and thought it over-wrought in every sense: rather too breast-beating and wordy. But I’m just flesh and blood like anyone else, and I thought, that’s interesting, wonder who it might be? I thought maybe it’s Rushdie, he has the same agent. Could it be Rushdie, could it be Rushdie? I showed it to one of Rushdie’s ex-girlfriends and she said, “That’s Salman.” So I thought, maybe it is and maybe I should publish it. And I did, under the byline Anonymous after signing a contract that said the author could never be named. Why he was so fussy about this, God knows, he was only taking E. Eventually I discovered his name and it wasn’t Salman Rushdie, or indeed any writer I’d ever head of. In fact, it was such a forgettable name that I instantly forgot it. The piece attracted attention in newspapers – good! Small magazines need all the publicity they can get. But I’m still rather ashamed of my catchpenny intentions. The answer to your original question by the way is yes, I was closely involved in the covers, which sometimes caused distress and arguments.
SRB: During the last London mayoral elections, you wrote a piece for the Guardian suggesting you’d leave London to live in Scotland if Boris Johnson was elected. Have you packed your bags?
IJ: I’ll just give you a little boring gloss on this before I answer the question. My editors at the Guardian asked me if I’d go as far as to say I’d leave London if Johnson were elected. And I said no, I don’t want to say that. It looks like the worst kind of vanity – who cares if I leave London or not? You may remember that in the 1990s one or two well-known writers went off to New York with similar farewells, and then quietly crept back again. Nevertheless, to my horror but perhaps not my surprise, I saw on the front page of the Guardian a headline cross-referencing the piece inside that suggested I’d said precisely what I’d been careful not to say. Anyway, your question is, will I quit Eng-land for Scotland ? Such a hard question. It would be terrible to feel alienated from a place that has given me so much in the way of friendship and opportunity and where I’ve spent going on for 40 years of my life, but the fact is that I find Dave Cameron and his chums quite alienating. How can the likely next government of such a richly varied country, and presently quite an anxious one, be drawn from such a smug and narrow social class? England’s in a curious state in many ways. Psychologically, politically, economically. So far its troubles haven’t been resolved into a nationalist message, but they might be one day and I think I’d rather live here than there if that became the case. On the other hand, I’m under no illusions about Scotland. Life here won’t be hunky-dory either, whether or not it becomes independent or more fully-devolved. We expect too much from politics and governments, when what we really need to worry about is the weather.
The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain: Writings 1989-2009
JONATHAN CAPE, £18.99
pp324, ISBN 9780224087353