You’re well known to booklovers already for your brilliant history writing – what made you want to take the leap into fiction?
The great thing about writing fiction is that you can just go for it – you don’t need to worry about the libel lawyers or the expectations of good taste demanded by a serious work of history. After my stroke I didn’t want to spend my time hanging around in libraries, but I did want to spend my time reflecting on some of what I have learned in over 30 years reporting on politics. Head of State is the result.
In Head of State, Britain is on the verge of an in/out EU referendum. When you began writing the novel, did you have any idea how relevant this issue would become?
I thought that the idea of an in/out referendum would be impossible for British politicians to dodge for much longer. It has slightly surprised me that this issue has certainly been pushed to the front of current the news agenda by events taking place now inside the Conservative party and UKIP. There is going to be a referendum, it will come sooner or later, and many of the issues discussed in Head of State will arrive at the forefront at that time. I just hope for all our sakes that we’re not led by the same kind of characters you find in my book – but I may well be wrong!
Your novel shows a certain affection for ‘old school hacks’ – do you have a favourite character in the book?
Well, Ken Cooper, the editor of the National Courier newspaper, is the editor I would love to have been, but never was. He is more foul mouthed, more aggressive, and has a lot more oomph than I ever did as a newspaper editor – so he’s a kind of hero of mine. Lucien McBryde, the cocaine splattered, alcoholic reporter is an accurate description of many, many reporters, but not the reporter I ever was, or would have wanted to be. I do have a very weird affection for Alois Haydn, my main villain. I believe that the world these days I largely run by PR companies operating behind the scenes, and he is the essence of the slimy evil that this represents.
As a historian, what do you think that future generations will think of our current State – our politicians, our media, and the relationship between the two?
I think that people in the future will look back at Britain today and think that this is the moment that the political classes lost it – the time when power moved over, possibly irrevocably, to the big commercial forces. This change has taken place simultaneously with a period when journalists and politicians have been locked in a tawdry, incestuous grip – often telling people stories that are trivial and don’t really matter, and hiding too much of the truth about how power really operates. I feel quite angry about this and some of my anger comes through in the novel.
Britain has a healthy tradition of satire, but we’re often told we get the politicians we deserve. What’s your opinion on how we should view our leaders? Do you think a certain amount of scepticism is healthy?
If we do indeed get the politicians we deserve then what does that say about us? It’s horrible and terrible to think that we should look in the mirror and say ‘we are the people that deserve these politicians’ – can that really be true? I think that the people who find their way to the top of politics are often admirable, but they are all a little odd and strange, and push their private lives down in a way that most of us wouldn’t. They also have a restless ambition that is impossible to ignore and have sharper elbows than anybody else in public life. They are pretty extraordinary people.
The main characters in Head of State are white, male and seem to know each other from school or university, or even be related by blood. To your mind, is this an accurate reflection of the way things are at the top today?
If we look not just at the number of old Etonians in the cabinet, but also at the number of old Etonians who are prominent British actors, prominent in newspapers and at the BBC – it’s a lot of people and this is only just one tiny network, Then think about the network of people who have been at the consultancy McKinseys and know each other. Britain today is a cluster of little sticky networks of mainly white men who have known each other far too well, for far too long.
The plot twist at the centre of Head of State has a horrifying plausibility. Can you dish any dirt on some of the more outrageous incidents you’ve been privy to as a political correspondent?
I have dealt with politicians who have lied to my face about matters of peace and war. I’ve dealt with politicians who I now know were sex criminals. So far as I know I haven’t dealt with a politician who has murdered anyone, but that’s probably because I haven’t been looking hard enough. Politics is full of extraordinary people who have done extraordinary and sometimes shameful things. It is also true that politics is full of very idealistic people who believe in making the world a better place. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find them too too in Head of State.
Head of State is published on 11th of September
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