The unusual format of this podcast is that I and the two interviewers (Ben and Nick) had each written a mini-story with the same title (‘I’m alone’) and we began by reading these.
Here’s me talking to Sam Ruddock, on behalf of National Centre for Writing, about dialogue among other things. Many thanks to Sam and to NCW for having me.
I’m looking forward to being a guest at a book group in Alaska this weekend. I won’t be physically present obviously (I wish I could be, the people who have invited me live in a place that looks absolutely amazing – see below). I’ll be joining them by Zoom.
For me getting used to meeting people via video link has been one of the upsides of the pandemic. It’s a technology that’s been around for some time, but I would never have thought of using it before this year. Yet, I’m not just using it as a substitute for meeting people in the flesh, I’m taking part in social events that previously wouldn’t have happened at all.
If you have a book group that’s meeting by Zoom and are looking at one of my books, feel free to contact me via this site.
I have no problem with the statue of Edward Colston being rolled into Bristol harbour, or with the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, who did so much to extend and cement white supremacy in Southern Africa. But I’m curious as to why so much more heat seems to be generated by colonialism and slavery in the past than by colonialism and slavery that is still going on in the present.
There are creditable reports that a million members of the Uighur minority in China are being held in concentration camps. (If the figure is accurate that would amount to about 8% of the entire Uighur population of China). A leaked Chinese government memo gives orders that the camps should:
- “Never allow escapes”
- “Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”
- “Promote repentance and confession”
- “Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority”
- “Encourage students to truly transform”
- “[Ensure] full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots”
There are also reports of enforced pregnancy tests, interuterine devices, and sterilisation of Uighur women, with the aim of reducing the Uighur population, and the threat of being detained in internment camps for non-compliance. Up to half a million children may have been removed from their parents and placed in state boarding schools. There are persistent allegations that Uighurs and other minorities being used as a source of organs for transplant, extracted by force, and sometimes resulting in the donor’s death. The BBC has published reports of systematic rape taking place in the camps, as well as torture.
And there are reports too of forced Uighur labour being used in factories that export goods to the west and that famous brands such as Apple, Nike and Adidas are using suppliers which are implicated in this form of slavery.
The slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean that ended in the nineteenth century was sustained not just by slave-traders and plantation owners, but also by the consumers who continued to buy products such as sugar and cotton that were harvested by enslaved people. We wonder now how people could have sweetened their coffee with sugar they knew to be harvested by slaves, or put on beautiful clothes made from cotton that slaves had picked under the lash, but it looks like we are doing essentially the same thing now. I daresay even some of those who pulled down the statue of Edward Colston owned an Apple phone (as I do myself) or were wearing Nike or Adidas shoes.
Easier perhaps for us to be outraged about injustices in which we were not personally implicated than to recognise our complicity in oppression that is happening now.
If there is a God… and on the whole I think there is… then all revealed religions are blasphemy. For that reason, I often refer to myself as an atheist. But it has to be said that atheism, on the whole, is superstitious twaddle.
Two people. One has learned to ride a bike, rides it all the time and never falls off, but has never stopped to wonder how exactly it is that she is able to keep the bike upright when moving, or why this is impossible when the bike is still. The other has never ridden a bike, but she is fascinated by the (surprisingly complex) question as to how a bike stays upright when moving, and has studied the physics and physiology of bicycle riding in great detail. Which of the two understands more about riding bikes?
Richard Dawkins observed that every religious person is an atheist with respect to every belief system except their own. One could quibble with that, one could point out that, if we are to agree that this is so, his own particular conception of ‘atheism’ would need to be added to the list. But the point I want to make just now is that the same is true in politics.
Religious belief is not for most people a matter of free choice, but is closely tied to geography and to heritage. Go to rural Morocco, and you won’t find many Protestants but you will find plenty of people who sincerely believe in Islam. Go to the American Midwest and the reverse is true. Even when people consciously move away from the religion of their ancestors, they tend to do so as a group.
Support for different political ideas is also not randomly distributed across the country. There are Labour areas, Tory areas, and Liberal and nationalist areas, and there are also Leave and Remain areas. Below is the referendum result map for the East of England where I live. (Pretty solidly Leave except for the small Remain island of Norwich and the larger Remain island stretching south from Cambridge.)
I see politics as consisting of two levels. In its essentials it is the process by which different classes and groups in society jockey for position, with each class or group seeking to defend what its has and, if possible, improve what it has. However most human beings like to see themselves as good, and so every group likes to have a reason why its demands are not in fact self-interested but in the interests of everyone (and usually there is at least an element of truth in the claim). As I think of it to myself, each group flies a flag.
And, just as we see through every religion but our own, so we tend to assume that the flags flown by rival groups are either the product of delusion, or a cover for self-interest, but take our own flags at face value, and find it difficult to accept that we too might be deluded, or that we too might have chosen a particular flag because it justifies our own self-interest. Many Remain voters, for instance, argue ‘we must be right because we are clever and well-educated’, without recognising that clever and well-educated people have their own particular interests as a class.
The main protagonist of Two Tribes is a man, Harry, who, in the latter half of 2016 notices that his own group’s flag is, after all, just one of several flags. He doesn’t reject it, but he becomes suspicious of the claims his friends make for it. He meets a woman, Michelle, who, so to speak, lives under the enemy flag. Both of them are intrigued by this because in other respects they like each other very much.
The story is told by another woman, Zoe, who lives two and half centuries away in the future. The flags of 2016 are not quite as remote to her as, say, Yorkists and Lancastrians are to us, because they still have counterparts in her world. But she knows things that we don’t know about the way that the culture wars of the twenty-first century played out, and she looks back at the period in a way that isn’t really aligned with either the Remainer or the Leaver camp.
More on Two Tribes here.
I am a slow learner. It was something of a revelation when I found out that the stories about the knights of the Round Table I enjoyed as a child were actually written for real knights, and that these real knights were not necessarily very nice people at all. (One of the sources of the Grail story, for instance, The High Book of the Grail, is dedicated to a knight who was a leading figure in two notorious bloodbaths: the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France.) It struck me then that most fiction is actually written to flatter its readers by making them, or people like them, the heroes of the story.
When it comes to Brexit it would have been an easy matter for me, as a ‘remain’ voter who writes science fiction, to do something of that kind. I could, for instance, have written a future dystopia, in which a ghastly caricature of the ‘leave’ camp is in charge, and noble, liberal, internationalist types are fighting a brave war of resistance. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have welcomed it.
But I don’t think it’s my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes, or big up the heroism of my own. If you want a simple ‘goodies versus baddies’ view of events, you can find it on social media, where whole armies of people are busy, night and day, proving how utterly and irredeemably bad those others are, and how very good they are. I’m sure this serves some useful psychological purpose, but it really isn’t my thing.
I don’t deny that there are bad people out there. And some of the nastiest and most mean-spirited aspects of British culture were certainly evident on the ‘leave’ side. But an exclusive focus on the shortcomings of others does tend to blind us to our own, and what I noticed in aftermath of the 2016 referendum was that, on the ‘remain’ side too, some pretty ugly things were crawling out of the shadows. Specifically I noticed the spread of a phenomenon which I’ve been observing for some time: middle class folk who, while describing themselves as on ‘the left’, somehow still feel free to express a sneering contempt for people less educated than themselves.
I say ‘ugly’, I say ‘nasty’, but the truth is that human beings are human, whatever tribe they belong to, and my objective, as in my other books –America City is probably the closest- was to write a story that looked at this particular time, not through the lens of ‘them and us’ but simply as human beings responding in different ways to their particular circumstances, as humans beings do.
Six boxes of hardback copies of Two Tribes have arrived for me to sign for those who like collecting signed new editions. (If that’s your thing and you want one, you can preorder from Goldsboro).
The book will be out on July 2nd in hardback and as an ebook.
Most of it isn’t science fictional at all, but is set in London and Norfolk in the latter part of 2016 and early 2017. But the framing device is science fictional. The narrator is 250 years in the future, constructing the story from diaries and other sources, and giving herself a fair amount of license to guess things, or even make things up.
The story itself deals mainly with an architect called Harry who has recently separated from his wife and lives in London, and a hairdresser called Michelle who lives in a small Norfolk town called Breckham, and an unlikely and unexpected relationship between them.
The thing that prompted this book -or one of the things anyway- was a map of the results of the 2016 EU referendum, as they applied to East Anglia where I live. The whole region was a sea of ‘Leave’ but I happen to live in Cambridge, which was not only one of two islands of ‘remain’ in East Anglia (the other was Norwich), but the remainiest place in the entire country (75% remain). Yet an hour’s drive away, and in the same county of Cambridgeshire, Fenland was one of the leaviest (71% leave).
I voted remain, and have always had a warm feeling for the whole European project, so I was very saddened by the referendum result, but I thought to myself, how would it be if instead of looking at all this as me living in an island of correctness in a sea of error, or an island of decency in a sea of intolerance, I was to look at it more in the way that, say, an outsider looks at the political geography of Belfast.
Some areas of that city are strongly and publicly unionist, others are equally strongly and publicly nationalist, but from an outsider’s perspective this is not one group of people who are right and decent, and another who are wrong and bad, but rather two tribes, who have been brought up to have different allegiances, and have learned to see the same question in an entirely different way.
I think that’s how the great Brexit divide will look in a couple of hundred years for, after a certain point, when we look at the conflicts of the past, the issues being fought over lose their heat. And that’s the kind of perspective I tried to write from in this book.
In the case of the Brexit vote, there are factors apart from geography that inclined people to vote one way or another, and in particular I was struck by the fact that the ‘leave’ vote was proportionately higher in poorer areas of England (Scotland is different because Scots have the SNP) and in the poorer socioeconomic classes. (Cambridge is not only the remainiest but also one of the very richest parts of the UK.) So, as well as the two tribes of ‘remain’ and ‘leave’, I was thinking when I wrote this book of the two tribes that are middle-class people (and specifically the liberal professional middle classes of which I am undoubtedly a part) and working class people.
Being middle class is definitely one of my topics at the moment. I touched on it in America City, and also in Beneath the World, a Sea, and it continues to be a theme in the book I’m writing now. Most novelists are written by middle class people (or arguably all, since being a writer might itself be defined as a typically professional middle class occupation). As a rule that fact is simply a given, the base from which other topics are looked at, rather than as a thing to be examined in itself. But that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
Needless to say, I was also thinking about Frankie Goes to Hollywood.