Rowan Pelling talks to author Robert Harris about politics and public schools, and his deprived childhood
This article was originally published on 11th February, 2016
It’s a crisp, clear, golden autumn evening in Cambridge the first time I talk to Robert Harris. We’re in the Union’s grand balconied debating chamber for a public discussion of his new novel, Conclave, a tautly plotted apostolic thriller (if you can imagine such a thing) about the sudden demise of the Pope and election of his successor. It wrestles with dilemmas of faith in the Twitter age and, as with all of Harris’s novels, is so gripping that I rip through it in one sitting. We later agree novels that lack a moral dimension can be rather inferior constructs. Harris describes himself as a being ‘a great believer in doubt’ and he’s still a bit cross his parents decided against christening him. He feels it must be wonderful to have been born into a tradition, even if you ignore it for long stretches of time. Tellingly, his three favourite authors are all deceased Roman Catholics: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Brian Moore.
Cambridge is greeting one of its own. Harris read English literature at Selwyn College in the 1970s, edited the student newspaper Varsity and was president of this very Union – causing an almighty rumpus when he asked the Great Train Robbers to come and speak to students. He tells me they all accepted, apart from Ronnie Biggs (who was presumably in Rio), and he later learned there had been a meeting at the Senate, where some of the university’s more senior members argued that Harris should be sent down for a term for his cheek.
After Cambridge, he went to the BBC, where he worked for Panorama and then Newsnight before going to the Observer as the paper’s political editor, aged thirty. After that, Harris wrote columns for the Sunday Times and then published Fatherland in 1992, the novel that re-imagined Europe as it might have been if Hitler had won the Second World War, which made his name and funded the purchase of a gorgeous neo-Gothic rectory in Berkshire. So far, so smooth a progress, and I must say Harris at 59 is one of the most unruffled men I’ve ever met. He is spruce, flush with good spirits and is clearly at ease in his own skin, perhaps because he sticks to a routine: rising at five or six, writing until half past twelve, then rewarding himself with a good, long lunch with a friend.
The second time we meet it’s at a gastro pub near his home and Harris has finished with the day’s work. He says, disarmingly, ‘Shall we get champagne?’, making me feel as if I’ve stepped back thirty years to old Fleet Street. (‘I’d say almost all my friends are journalists,’ he tells me. ‘They’re by and large self-deprecating and funny and amused by the world. Novelists and academics take themselves far too seriously.’) Fizz is followed by a bottle of claret, and later he enjoys a cigar. Which all serves to remind me how seldom nowadays you see productive, thoughtful people living life to the boozy full. I tell Harris that the cultured readers of The Oldie will be familiar with his books, so ask him to talk about what maddens him about modern life. He says he’s always joked he should have a column called ‘Don’t get me started’, and with that we’re away.
As a friend of many of the architects of New Labour (Peter Mandelson is a particularly close chum), Harris sighs at the mention of Jeremy Corbyn and says ‘It’s hard to see any circumstances in which he could win a general election.’ He points out that in 1976 the Labour leadership contest was between Callaghan, Benn, Healey, Crosland, Foot and Jenkins. And now it’s between Corbyn and … We both stop talking and desperately try to remember the name of the other candidate. It’s several long minutes before Harris triumphantly arrives at ‘Owen Smith!’
We then move on to discussing Shami Chakrabarti’s decision to join Corbyn’s back bench, despite having a son at Dulwich College, one of the country’s most elite public schools. Harris declares this ‘the height of hypocrisy’. His own four children were, for the most part, educated at the local comprehensive school, St Bartholomew’s in Newbury, and he notes ‘how much better the teachers are in the state sector … far more committed, more charismatic, more interesting’. When I later ask him what he’d do to try to resolve the burgeoning problem of social inequality, he says immediately he would abolish private schools. I wonder what he makes of Theresa May after all those Etonians in government. He has no strong feelings, but says: ‘It does feel as if the whole country is being run by the Home Office, which is the deadest and dullest place on earth.’
Boris Johnson merits rather more of a swipe. Harris says Johnson came to interview him for the Telegraph in this very pub some years ago and wrote in his article that you could only get to Harris’s house by going over a moat (in reality the Kennet and Avon canal) and that all Harris’s friends call him ‘Moneybags’. A few months later he bumped into Johnson, who asked Harris how he’d liked the interview. Harris said it was fine, except for the fact that none of his friends had ever used that moniker. Johnson said breezily, ‘Oh, I made that up.’ Harris adds that it’s impossible to dislike Boris, but he’s clearly baffled about the former journalist having made his way to the Foreign Office. Could he make a good foreign secretary? ‘What can one say?’ asks Harris. ‘I think he was a pretty poor journalist. His column always read as if it had been written in forty minutes. I don’t dislike him. No one who’s met Boris can dislike him. You can’t help but feel a sort of good luck to him, in some way. But you couldn’t put him in fiction. No one would believe it. It would be too fantastical to suggest that such a figure could hold this position.’
Harris is also preoccupied by the speed of the information revolution, which has ‘completely outstripped human beings’ ability to control anything. That’s having a really peculiar effect on our culture’. He tried to write about this in his 2011 novel The Fear Index – about a rogue hedge-fund algorithm – and feels Brexit was, in part, a reaction to this perceived loss of control: an attempt to ‘draw a circle around Britain’ and say ‘We will be ourselves, we don’t want to be part of this borderless hyper-world that’s being told what to do, effectively, by financial forces.’ He pauses and then says, ‘I have sympathy with that.’ I can’t help wondering if, in the wake of some outlandish claims pre-Referendum and Donald Trump’s more surreal statements, he feels we’re living in a post-truth world. He nods and relates a ‘heated’ conversation he had in the summer with a perfectly intelligent person, who was absolutely convinced the Americans brought down the Twin Towers: ‘Empirical evidence doesn’t seem to count any more.’
The novelist pours another glass of claret and adds ruefully, ‘Unfortunately, there are spasms of madness that come across humanity from time to time and we seem to be entering into one of them now.’ He adds that if anyone had said to him thirty years ago the main problem now would be religious fundamentalism, he would have looked at them as if they were insane. Clouds of doom begin to mass over our table. Harris says his new novel is set in Berlin in 1938 and he sees certain parallels between now and that pre-war era. Then he brightens and says he loathes being too pessimistic: ‘One sounds like an old fart – with all due respect to The Oldie.’ We switch topic to the honorary doctorate he was awarded by Nottingham University a couple of years ago, where he had to hand out degree certificates. Harris beams as he says the men were all ‘so handsome’, the women all ‘so beautiful’ that ‘they were like a force. It was impossible not to be optimistic’.
This seems an appropriate moment to examine Harris’s own youth. His father was a printer who left school at fourteen (‘He started work the day after he left’) and money was tight in the writer’s childhood. He says the arrival of the gas bill was a monthly trauma, and they never had a foreign holiday. He didn’t even have a passport until he was 21 and working on Panorama, when his producer wanted to send him on assignment to Berlin. He didn’t learn to drive until later either, as there was no spare cash for the extra insurance involved. But their house in Nottingham was filled with books, culture and lively talk of politics. At the Cambridge Union talk, Harris almost brought the roof down when he said his first school essay, aged six, was entitled, ‘Why me and my dad don’t like Sir Alec Douglas-Home’.
Writing came easily to the young Harris and he says that by the age of eight he had already decided this was what he wanted to do. A couple of years later he made his first proper purchase: a portable Remington typewriter, acquired for a tenner. And with writing came escape: ‘I lived a lot in my head, always have – and still do actually.’
He met his wife, the writer Gill Hornby (sister of Nick), while they were both working on Newsnight. He was 26 and she was a couple of years younger and he engineered an interview with her at Westminster on the pretext that he needed the young assistant producer to help him. On the way back in a black cab to the office, as they were going round Hyde Park Corner, Gill told him that she knew she had met the man she was going to marry. He says it was uttered without ‘any great sense of destiny’. By this time, we are wandering back along the canal to The House That Hitler Bought (as Harris’s rectory is fondly known). It’s a home that pulls off the tricky feat of being smart and welcoming at the same time. Books are everywhere, as are literary heroes. I’m immediately arrested by a portrait of Byron, but Harris has to tell me that the other intense man in a large gilt frame is Joseph Conrad. There’s a particularly fine sculpture of Somerset Maugham’s head in Harris’s study and a fierce bust of Julius Caesar, while in pride of place, on the author’s desk, is a bust of Cicero – the subject of Harris’s brilliant Roman trilogy Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator (an I, Claudius for the 21st century).
We sit outside in a brief burst of afternoon sun overlooking the canal and Harris pours tea, and more wine, as we talk about another close relationship – his friendship with Roman Polanski, who directed the film version of The Ghost and has influenced Harris’s subsequent writing. Harris says Polanski is the sharpest person he’s ever met. He acknowledges the fact that some think ‘he’s beyond the pale’, but points out in mitigation that two people who now call for the director’s rehabilitation are both the victim and the prosecutor.
Talk of rehabilitation takes us on to Tony Blair. Harris feels that if only the former PM had turned around when the Chilcot report was published and said ‘I did what I thought to be right at the time and regret what has happened since’, there could have begun to be some form of healing within the Labour Party. ‘It was our moment and we fucked it up,’ he says. ‘In the end New Labour was just too obsessed with money and power and success and really Tony turned his back on Parliament. And really, in the end, a big figure, a Churchill, a Lloyd George, a Thatcher, they don’t just turn their backs on it.’ I ask what he thinks of David Cameron turning his back on Parliament and, for the first time, there’s a flash of real anger: ‘Cameron, I think, is going to be in the ninth cycle of hell … I could make a case for Neville Chamberlain and I could make a case for Anthony Eden, but I find it quite hard to make a case for David Cameron. It’s the insouciance. When he made that statement in Downing Sreet, he went off humming. I don’t know whether he was putting it on or not – but it was deeply frivolous.’
And that’s the great thing about Robert Harris; he’s tremendously upbeat and often jolly funny, but he’s not the least bit frivolous. When I ask him what he relishes most about the life he leads now, in contrast with his financially circumscribed childhood, I expect him to cite champagne, the Garrick and the Beefsteak clubs and nice cars. He answers immediately, ‘No, not those peripheral things – the thing I treasure is time.’ The most debilitating thing he witnessed with his father was the necessity of having ‘to sell your life from eight to five o’clock, five and a half days a week’. He says he emerged from his childhood with a burning desire not to lead that kind of circumscribed existence, but ‘always to have freedom, and really that has been my guiding principle’. He even felt imprisoned by the BBC rotas on Newsnight. He says he can compromise on everything else; Corney & Barrow reserve claret rather than Château Lafite, Norfolk beach holidays rather than the Riviera. In the end, for Harris, money buys time – and therefore freedom. On that note, I realise it’s time to set the great author free from this lengthy interview.