ROBERT HARRIS AND THE POLITICAL NOVEL

Off last night to the LSE to see the author, Robert Harris, being interviewed by Peter Kemp (chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times) on the subject of The Political Novel. It was a very enjoyable event mainly because the rapport between the two men was a good one and because Harris is an amiable and amusing interviewee. Harris started out as a reporter with the BBC, working on Newsnight and Panorama, before becoming the political editor of The Observer. His first novel Fatherland was published in 1992 and was a huge bestseller. It’s a thriller set in an imagined future in which Germany has won the war, Hitler’s 75th birthday is coming up and no one knows anything about the Holocaust.

Here’s a summing up of some of the things discussed:

  • Political influences – being with his father as he heckled Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 general election campaign and also being born close enough to the Second World War for it to be talked about all the time.
  • Difference between political journalism and fiction – political journalism is ‘all up front’ and fiction is about ‘hiding and concealment.’
  • On the writing of Fatherland – he said he started off writing twenty or thirty pages with lots of people in a room and then didn’t know what to do with them or how to get them out. He put the novel away for a year and then his agent wrote to him with a quote from American writer John Irving which stated that you must know what happens at the end before you start. He then went back to the novel and set off writing it from about five different points of view before deciding to settle on only one, the detective, because he was the most conflicted and therefore the most dramatic.
  • His experience of writing fiction – once he ‘went through the looking glass into his imagination’ and began writing fiction he felt there was no going back.
  • The pace of his novels – Kemp asked if that had to do with the speed with which he wrote. Harris replied that if he had one contract with his readers it was not to bore them and that the use of an urgent timescale was useful in that regard. He also pointed out that the great 19th century novels (Dickens, Trollope) were written under great time pressure.
  • Writing habits – he starts to write in January delivering the manuscript in June or July and then having the book published in September or October. He writes about a 1000 words a day gets up early and is done by lunch time. He talked about letting ‘the boys in the basement’ do some of the work. An expression used by Stephen King to describe the subconscious.
  • Influence of George Orwell  – he said that the book 1984 was the great argument for fiction because by inventing characters and creating an imaginary work Orwell created a work of imagination which will never date.   Non-fiction will always be rewritten i.e. someone at some point will write another history of Stalingrad, but fiction is imperishable. Amusingly he said that apparently Orwell thought that War and Peace was much too short that he could have stayed in that world created by Tolstoy for much longer.
  • His own favourite book – that was the one he was working on (his present one is on the Catholic Church) because it was ‘a perfect sphere of possibilities which had not yet crashed to earth.’
  • His favourite 19th century novel – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
  • On Anthony Trollope – the reason why there is no modern Trollope is because Britain simply isn’t as important in world politics anymore. When Trollope was writing, British politics was the fulcrum of the world and had the most powerful legislature in the world.

Harris is an interesting writer because he writes across a broad range of different time-frames and countries:alternative history detective novel (Fatherland), second world war Britain (Enigma) contemporary Russia (Archangel), contemporary Britain (The Ghost) the classical world (Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator). He is so spectacularly bestselling he transcends branding. He said the book his publishers flinched at was Pompeii but that when it sold as well as Fatherland they didn’t mind. You have to sell a very great many books to earn that kind of freedom. Long may it continue. His most recent book is the third in his trilogy about Cicero called Dictator.

Personally, my favourite Robert Harris is The Ghost. It’s about a ghostwriter who is hired to write the memoirs of Britain’s former Prime Minister. It’s brilliant and apart from anything else it’s incredibly funny. If like me you have dark thoughts when you think of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, this is the book for you.

Have you read any Robert Harris books? What’s your favourite political novel? Or what have you read recently that you would describe as a political novel?

 

THE IMITATION GAME versus BREAKING THE CODE

Andrew Hodges brilliant book which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game

The brilliant book by Andrew Hodges which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game.

Every war has its invisible heroes. I’ve been thinking about that recently in the context of the novel I’ve been working on, Far Away, which is based on my father, Robert Blake’s, account of escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War. In some respects his account is a classic Boy’s Own account of derring-do. But what he never wrote about was that when he got back to England he was in MI6, albeit at a fairly junior level. So there is the visibility and drama of his escape story contrasted with the complete silence of what happened next. At least he could talk about some part of his war experience if he wanted to.

Alan Turing could not say a word.

He’s the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game and if ever there was an invisible hero it’s Turing. He was the British mathematician, who, at Bletchley Park, was responsible for creating the machine which broke the German Enigma code during the Second World War.  That act, the film tells us, is supposed to have been responsible for ending the war two years early and saving 14 million lives. Turing is also viewed as the inventor of the digital computer. So, an extraordinary thing to have done, and by any consideration an extraordinary individual.

However, he was a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In the 1950s he was prosecuted for gross indecency (i.e. sleeping with his boyfriend in his own home) and given the choice between chemical castration and two years in prison. He chose the drugs and then one year later committed suicide at the age of 41. His security clearance for GCHQ had been removed by the government because at that time homosexuals were viewed as a liability due to the risk of them being blackmailed. The way he was treated was eventually viewed as so shameful that Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009:

‘On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say we’re sorry, you deserved better. So much better.’

GORDON BROWN

In August 2009 a petition was started to get him pardoned, leading to the Queen signing a posthumous pardon for his conviction of gross indecency, on Christmas Day 2013. I had seen Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi playing Turing, in the late eighties (that was adapted for TV in 1996) and loved it, so I was interested to see what the film would be like. Click below if you want to see the 1996 TV drama and do your own compare and contrast.

Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful and I can see why he’s been tipped for an Oscar but the film he excels in is rather pedestrian and filled with the sort of fake obstacles that screenwriters use when they are not trusting the innate power of their story or the intelligence of their audience. The effect was to stretch my credulity to breaking point too many times and make me wonder what might have happened if Tomas Alfredson, who directed the film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had been in charge. Or indeed Mike Leigh.

There are some striking differences between the play and the film. In the film there are no scenes which depict Turing with his male lovers whereas in the play there are several. The film focuses instead on the relationship between Turing and a female code breaker, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. Obviously, I can see the commercial reasons for giving Knightley a prominent role but the absence of his male lovers still seems to me pretty baffling. We are supposed to live in more enlightened times, aren’t we? and yet this is a film that seems to have taken one step back into the closet. In the play we also see Turing with some kind of emotional hinterland; there are his lovers and also his mother. The depiction of him is of a less traumatized and more connected individual. Certainly he’s eccentric but he’s not as isolated. In the play it is also clear that Turing naively shops himself to the police by telling the truth about his relationship. There’s none of that in the film or the fact that he killed himself by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. So, no mother, no lovers, no apple and no cyanide.

So what does the film have going for it?

Well, it’s got Cumberbatch’s performance and it’s also got the machine (or Bombe as it was called) and that’s gripping, lots of red spaghetti-like wiring and whirring and clicking cogs. And it also has a stand out performance by Alex Lawther as the young Turing.

One other thing that I liked very much in the film was the phrase ‘blood-soaked calculus’. This was used to describe the calculation the secret services had to make about whether they could act on the information they got from deciphering German messages. This was because they did not want the Germans to know they had broken Enigma. So the decision with each piece of information was: Can we use this or will it give the game away? As a writer, I’d have been very proud of myself if I’d come up with that expression. As a human being I’m very glad I’ve never had to make those sorts of  decisions.

Both Jacobi and Cumberbatch are fantastic actors and where they both excel is in conveying in a compelling manner reams of barely comprehensible (to me anyway) mathematics in a way which means that you completely believe that they understand what they are saying, even if you haven’t got a clue. On the whole I think I preferred Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, which seemed to me  more sophisticated and more nuanced than the film.

One last point. As the film points out, 49,000 men were prosecuted under the same law as Turing. What about them? It makes no sense to pardon Turing and not them. No sense at all.

This is what Lord McNally, the Lord Chief Justice at the time Turing’s pardon was being considered, had to say on the matter:

‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence… It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence that now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However the law at the time required a prosecution and as such long standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than try and alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right ensure instead that we never return to those times.’

To paraphrase: Back then the law was an ass but it was the law. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m glad his view and ‘long standing policy’ didn’t prevail. The human heart requires a different response, doesn’t it?

Andrew Hodges’ brilliant book  Alan Turing: The Enigma published in 1983 was the source material for both Breaking the Code and The Imitation Game. Here’s the link to his website: http://www.turing.org.uk

What do you think of retrospective pardons and apologies? Too little too late? Or an important way in which society seeks to tell itself that it’s changed for the better. What did you think of the film?