FromOctober 3, 2009
To mark six decades years of The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, we asked some distinctive voices to recall key years
1949 P.D. James (b 1920)
It was a year of mingled endurance, austerity and hope as Britain, like the other combatants, tried to adjust to the rigours and expectations of peace. Servicemen and women had exchanged uniforms for the demob suits provided by a grateful government but still looked oddly ill at ease in them. Life at home was, apart from the absence of bombing, as difficult as in the last years of the war. Food rationing was still with us, indeed was more stringent, and continued until 1954. The city bomb sites became rock gardens as wild flowers took root among the bricks and stones. Husbands returned to children who had been babies when they left and wives, released from the companionship and independence of the wartime factories, returned reluctantly to their kitchens. We had in the six years of war become accustomed to a new vocabulary — Blitz, evacuees, all-clear, shelters, sirens — and now we acquired new words: demob, prefab, Cold War, atom bomb, Holocaust. New countries were established and the map of the world changed.
The country, including servicemen still overseas, had voted overwhelmingly for change and the Labour Government under Clement Attlee was embarking on a great programme of social reform in a country almost bankrupt. It was the year I got my first postwar job. With a husband returned ill from war service and two young daughters, I needed to find work and applied for a post in the National Health Service, which had become law in 1948. I was living in Ilford with my parents-in-law and was employed at a small outpatient hospital for skin diseases in London, where I was a filing clerk, organiser of outpatients’ appointments, guardian of the petty cash and in charge of the stamp book. The majority of the country overwhelmingly welcomed the new service and the lifting of the dread of serious illness. The state would now provide for us from birth to death. We were told that the first two years would be unavoidably expensive as patients received spectacles, false teeth, wigs and long overdue treatment, but after that the service would be less costly year by year as the country became healthier under its beneficent care.
Despite the austerity, shortages and the sad detritus of war, we managed to enjoy ourselves, as survivors always do. Clothes rationing ended in 1949 and we contrived to copy Dior’s famous New Look with a full skirt flowing from a trim waistline. New clothes were a happy release from the utility clothes regulated by government orders and designed to save material while being hard-wearing. Sporting events attracted large crowds and I went to Wimbledon in my Dior-type dress where the Centre Court was either entertained or shocked by the American player “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran who wore frilly knickers. There had been no frilly knickers in wartime! And now, with the beaches cleared of mines, the coast was open again and families could enjoy a holiday by the sea. Films continued to be the most popular entertainment and I particularly recall seeing The Third Man when it was released in September. It remains a favourite. The book published that year that I most remember was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. What there was to celebrate, we celebrated, and the most popular dance, particularly for the young, was the energetic jitterbug.
All over the world populations of the dispossessed were still moving like shabby armies in search of lost family, safety and a place they could call home. But there was always tomorrow and the beginning of a new decade and surely, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, the United Nations would be a more effective guardian of peace than had been the old League of Nations. And I too had hope that maybe the next decade, or the one after that, would see me writing my first novel.
1959 Melvyn Bragg (born 1939)
The year is an odd one. I had been at Oxford for one term and when I returned in January from my home in Wigton, Cumbria, it was with as much trepidation as anticipation. The chief preoccupation that year was to find an equilibrium.
It was an all-male college and since the age of 4 I had been in mixed schools. It was a public school structure throughout the university and while that was not difficult to get the hang of, and intriguing in its way, it was still another country. And it was bewilderingly full of choices.
I had already made friends in my own college — Wadham — in fact on the same staircase. They have remained friends ever since. Alan, a classicist, Robert, a zoologist and Ulick, a fellow historian. All from public schools, generous, good company — and without a trace of snobbery.
1959 was the year when I got used to going to the theatre every week — the Oxford Playhouse. Frank Hauser put on classic after classic. I saw Waiting for Godot, which forever changed what I thought was possible in the theatre. It is odd that Anouilh’s Becket was just as big a hit at the time. For me, The Tin Drum was the stun- novel of that year but many of us were also hooked on Durrell and Mountolive came out then. The other stun gun was Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. It took the essay into the ring of the real world. Like Grass and Beckett, Mailer caught the tone of our minds at that time. Oxford was good at bringing in the outside world of the cinema. Bergman, Fellini, Renoir, Buñuel — these and others were a revelation for me.
Harold Macmillan’s victory had a feeling of inevitability: those two phrases “The winds of change” and “You’ve never had it so good” hit a nerve and enough people thought that a caring Tory party was a more comforting option after years of war and austerity, and besides, the Left felt strong in the moral authority and muscle of the unions. What would become great matters were at some distance. Castro and Che Guevara blazed on to the scene but their political impact had only just begun.
My own world was changing in l959, in smaller ways. It was the last year in which I played rugby. I played it at school with a brilliant team — and at Wadham I played in a team most of whom had done National Service. My age group just missed that. But rugby swallowed half a day and too many pints when there were better options. It was also the last time I sang in a choir, Wadham Chapel Choir. I had sung in choirs since the age of 6 and again thought that that was one of the things you did in life. However, other activities elbowed out choir practice and, regretfully, that particular pleasure of singing with others so that you are part of a wonderful sound but you can’t hear yourself was over.
One of the main difficulties was keeping my Wigton life and my girlfriend in play while being about 250 miles away. That was partly solved by hitchhiking up to Cumberland late on a Friday night. It is surprising how soon you can make friends with a particular lorry driver.
By summer I was comfortable in the city and especially in the college and, most importantly, I knew that now there was no way back. Wadham College was remarkably liberal and enterprising at that time. There were people around the college who were so far ahead of the game that they could have been on another planet. Michael Kustow was already the embodiment of European culture. Dan Klein was a brilliant tenor. David Caute, Julian Mitchell and Alan Coren were all published writers by the time they took Firsts. Yet they were cheerful and dwelt among us!
I think in a way they were unconscious models, daring us to do what might never have occurred to us. I began writing short stories at the time. I had not the remotest ambition of publishing these stories, nor did I tell anyone else about writing them, but I am sure that the hours I spent pegging away were in some way to do with what that dazzling triumvirate had already achieved.
I spent the summer working in a lemonade factory in the town in which I lived and was cured for ever of a taste for lemonade, but the wages were good enough and the people were men my parents had known all their lives.
Meanwhile, the outside world impinged to the extent of taking part in an Aldermarston march and being in at the start of Jacari (the Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance). The first Minis — the car that would become a symbol of the following decade — were produced, proudly, just up the road from my college, in Cowley. The first case of HIV was diagnosed in the Congo but I doubt if it registered anything like as much as The Day the Music Died when Buddy Holly went down in a plane crash.
It was the year when I knew I had left something, not only the town I lived in but my background, and crossed into something different. In many ways much fuller of potential. In other ways much poorer.
1959: Richard Eyre (b 1943)
Forty years ago I was 16.To the teenager of today the England of 1959 would seem as remote as another climate and another continent.
The coronation in 1953 of Queen Elizabeth II had acted as a huge stimulant to the Monarchy. The ‘New Elizabethan Age” offered a philosophical surrogate for a lost Empire – to which were annexed the ascent of Everest and the recapture of The Ashes under the first ever professional captain.
But theprofessionalisation of cricket wasn’t replicated in most other areas of British life. Civilian institutions tended to be run by ex-officers and gentlemen, reproducing the polarities of the forces – for which conscription still existed (until 1960). A world made safe for democracy had been made safe for hierarchy. “Let’s be frank about it,” said Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1957, “most of our people have never had it so good”. True for a ever-widening middle class, but it made little impact on a working-class still suffering substantial poverty in spite of the Welfare State.
There were little bubbles of dissent – the Goon Show on the radio, for instance, and a group of novelists and poets which included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn, who wrote about intelligent, provincial, lower-middle class, educated, disaffected young men. It is a mark of the overwhelming conformity of the times that those authors were later lumped together and christened with the generic title: “Angry Young Men”.
American writing, theatre, films, comics and music had started to penetrate the carapace of British homogeneity but it’s hard now to imagine the lack of choice, the lack of colour, the lack of public joy, the sheer monochromatic greyness of everything. “Dickensian” is not an idle adjective to apply to a country in which only a third of the population had exclusive use of bath, lavatory and cooker, nearly half had no bath at all, central heating was an exotic luxury and the smoke from coal fires smothered large cities with dense fogs. If I think back to 1959 now, it seems like one long wet Sunday afternoon.
1969 Paddy Ashdown (b 1941)
I was in Hong Kong, on sabbatical from the Royal Marines, busy studying Chinese and preparing for my final exams. All my school reports said I couldn’t possibly learn languages (I got 5 out of 200 in O-level French, which must be a world-record low), but during the war that we were fighting in Borneo I learnt Malay, and then I learnt Dayak, and so when I finished commanding No 2 Special Boat Section in the Far East I thought I’d learn Cantonese.
My wife and two children came out to join me for 18 months, but for the last part of 1969 I was living with the Chinese: reading Chinese newspapers, listening to Chinese radio. I was pretty oblivious to what was going on — apart from what was going on in China, of course, which was the Cultural Revolution. In the late 1960s Hong Kong was full of riots — but although the authorities knew I was a serviceman and presumed I would probably be a British spy, they treated me extremely well. I was, on one occasion, inadvertently swept up in a Chinese riot. The Armed Forces and police were trying to stop it as I was pushed in a huge crowd down one of the main streets in Hong Kong. The nearest I came to harm was when I went out walking with Chinese friends near the border with the People’s Republic. Over the hills came a huge crowd of Red Guards chanting “May Mao Zedong live for a thousand years”. I was about half a foot taller than my companions, so very conspicuous. My friend told me to bend my knees and pull out my Hong Kong and Shanghai chequebook, which happened to be exactly the same red as Mao Zedong’s Red Book. So I waved that enthusiastically and shouted “Long live Chairman Mao!” It was ironic that I was saluting Mao with the symbol of Hong Kong capitalism.
In 1968 and 1969 the Sixties really came to Hong Kong. A day after the miniskirt arrived, every young girl was wearing one. On the weekend of the Moon landing, in July, I was with some European friends on holiday in a bungalow on the island of Lantau, watching on television.
During the year I became very nervous that the Cultural Revolution was going to wash over into Hong Kong, so I went up behind where we lived and placed a cache of food in a hide in the mountains. I even taught my wife to fire a sub-machinegun — not that it would have done any good. I didn’t think the Chinese Government would do anything stupid, but the mobs were out of control. Mutilated bodies were being washed up on the beaches of Hong Kong — people killed in the Cultural Revolution and thrown in the Pearl River.
The other thing I recall very clearly — because I was living in the Causeway Bay district — is the place being awash with American soldiers on R&R from Vietnam. The best illustration of how dangerous it was out there didn’t come from any newspaper or film — it came from the sheer desperation of these guys as they went about making the most of their three days’ holiday before they went back to Vietnam. How many of them never saw their home again I don’t know.
1979 Audrey Niffenegger (b 1963)
In my memory Chicago was buried in snow for most of 1979. On January 12 a blizzard began and eventually cars were submerged, the El tracks froze, schools shut down. By the end of that winter 88in of snow had fallen and the city was transformed into a soft, muffled maze of shovelled-out sidewalks and fiercely guarded parking spaces.
I was 15 years old. I spent most of the snowy afternoons sitting with my boyfriend in an attic room of his family’s immense house, smoking and looking out the window at the snow. My boyfriend’s name was not Michael but let’s go ahead and call him that. Michael was tall and extraordinarily thin. He looked like an Irish, pigeon-chested Clark Kent. In a few years he would look more like Superman but he was never able to take himself up on that. Later in 1979 he contracted tuberculosis but in the winter we just stared at the snow, played Uno, necked and waited for the thaw.
Elsewhere in the world tranquillity was rare. The Iranian revolution got under way. A woman named Brenda Ann Spencer gunned down a bunch of schoolchildren in San Diego and when asked why she’d done it replied, “I don’t like Mondays.” It snowed for half an hour in the Sahara Desert. An earthquake afflicted Montenegro and Albania, killing 136 people. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. McDonald’s sold its first Happy Meals.
Back in Chicago the snow eventually melted. Michael and I broke up; the main thing we’d had in common was moodiness. Spring was late and muddy. I walked to school through epic puddles and experienced the joy that we Midwesterners feel upon our release from every bad winter.
Sid Vicious died. The Clash put out London Calling, the Who film Quadrophenia was released. I turned 16 and got a job in a movie theatre as a candy girl. People stood in lines that stretched around the block to see 10, The In-Laws, Being There and Hair.
I had friends all over the city working in other theatres. We would let each other in free, so I saw four or five movies every week: Nosferatu, Rock’n’Roll High School, The Tin Drum. My friends’ theatres were cooler than the one I worked at, but my theatre had labyrinthine passages behind the screen into which we could disappear while the movie was running, to smoke pot and flirt.
The inflation, bad hair and goofiness of the 1970s was about to become the shoulder pads and drum-machine synth-pop of the 1980s. I was caught in the perpetual low mood of mid-adolescence, but I could see better days ahead. Michael killed himself a few years later. Out in the world people continued to fall in love, do terrible things in the name of religion, make art, invent the internet, have babies and sing in the shower. Billions of Happy Meals were sold.
1979: Simon Armitage (b 1963)
I did my O’levels in 1979, and remember it as a pretty nasty year, spend largely with classmates who were killing time before heading off into engineering or agriculture. They all seemed many times bigger than me, as if they were gorging themselves on raw meat or injecting steroids behind the bike sheds while I waited my turn in the dinner queue. One particularly over-sized creature used to give me nightmares. He was mythologically large for a fifteen year old, and I swear he had the head of a bull. What’s he doing now? I remember the seventies as violent times. I saw a man getting a proper kicking on the bus once in the middle of the day, and kids threw stones at each other as a matter of course.
I walked on the moors a lot, and I had a few good friends who lived nearby. Bikes were a big thing: customising them, mending them, sometimes riding them. A girl called Jane procured a packet of cigarettes for us – I suppose she was a kind of dealer. They were Consulate Menthol, a bit like smoking Wrigley’s spearmint chewing gum. When they ran out we ground up some tree bark and smoked it in one of my dad’s old pipes. I played cricket for the village, kept wicket because no one else wanted to and anyway it looked safer wearing those pads and the big webbed gloves. I was young for my age – still had a paper round and a tree house. But music was getting louder. The tail end of punk, then Talking Head’s Fear of Music and Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. And poetry – Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn. I grew a lot that summer, even got taller. It was the end of the beginning, and about time.
1979: Will Self (b 1961)
1979 was a crunch year for me: I think I was more or less pulverised in the gap between school and university. It didn’t help that it was a momentous year politically – and that I was going up to read PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford. I can remember the horror show of the May election as if it were yesterday; it was the last general election before I was able to vote myself – but I was probably more politically engaged than I’ve ever been since. The sense of dreadful impotence as the results came in, and it became clear that there would be a large Tory win was quite as enervating as the fact that we’d been up all night ingesting copious quantities of mind-altering substances – what a way to enter a new era.
My girlfriend at the time worked in a debt collection agency in Edgware, and I also recall with total clarity driving her into work on that sunlit doomy morning – what a harbinger of the world to come.
That summer, as part of my ongoing man-of-the-people schtick, I worked as a road sweeper, and was set to sweep the Hendon Way, a particularly grim North London arterial road. I remember the supervisor coming round when I’d done one side (about two miles of verge) to tell me that I’d have to redo it – revolution was immediately in the monoxide-stinky air!
After that, Oxford was a shock to the system. I arrived in a sharkskin suit with multiply-pierced ears and a nihilistic attitude, and was immediately set to work studying JS Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’. As a grammar school boy, and the only Oxbridge entrant for several years, I entertained the delusion that I was the sharpest tool in the box – needless to say I was soon disabused. Keith Joseph arrived to talk to lecture PPEists and we hounded him out of the lecture room and chased him through the town. It was probably the last political victory any organised force secured against the new regime.
That winter saw me moodily crawling through the tall grass on Port Meadow looking for edible fungi – and I wasn’t even a mycologist.
1989 Oleg Gordievsky (b 1938)
Visiting Paris in 1989, I saw an advertise- ment for the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I wanted to watch it in English, and did so in London soon after. I found it very touching. In 1968 I was working for the KGB. The crime of the invasion was the last straw in my decision to help the West against the militaristic Soviets .
A few years before the invasion of Czechoslovakia I saw the Berlin Wall being built, which shattered my belief in “socialism”. Seventeen million East Germans were imprisoned — I thought for ever. In 1961 I was a diplomat trainee in East Germany. The Soviet Embassy was hectic and very nervous. I saw the Russian tanks and the East German “workers units” looking like Nazi soldiers, and I saw the first line of barbed wire. On TV, I saw how East German citizens jumped from the fifth floor to the Western side. I would never have predicted that, 28 years later, a wave of anti-communist revolutions would go through Eastern Europe, making the people free.
I was very impressed by the revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where unarmed people overturned regimes that had soldiers, police forces and tanks. I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV in Britain, aware that the Kremlin, with its army of 250,000 in East Germany, didn’t dare to use it. The communists in Eastern Europe were doomed. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan the same year meant that the Soviet regime didn’t have the strength to keep its empire. To my disappointment, the anti-communist revolution didn’t triumph in China, where heroic students were mauled by communist tanks in Tiananmen Square.
The next year I was in Germany, where I took part in celebrations marking the creation of the united German state. I had dreamt about it since my student years.
In 1989, the British media focused on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was a small episode compared with the heroic struggle of an East European nation against tyranny. At the time, I was, and still am, under the KGB death sentence. I don’t shout about it on street corners.
Throughout 1989 I was busy helping Christopher Andrew to finish the monograph KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. I must admit that his contribution to the book was much larger than mine. It remains the best book on the history of the KGB.
I also visited Australia to brief the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, on the Soviet system. He was very different from the British stereotype. He put his secretary on a chair in the middle of the room and said things such as: “Get me a cigar.” The secretary ran to a desk for one. Mr Hawke exclaimed: “Not this. A big one.” My English colleagues were shocked, but I, as a Russian, was not.
The next day a group of civil servants invited me to speak. It turned out that there was an audience of 400 people. I had to speak to them without a break for three hours. I thought it would be a record for me, but a couple of months later I went to speak at the FBI Academy in Quantico. The audience kept me talking for four hours, and I had to sign copies of the book. One FBI officer asked me not merely to sign his book but to write “Take it philosophically”. I was very flattered, because I realised he was referring to the story of my brush with death.
In 1985 I was acting head of the KGB station in London. In June I was leaving the building to await my final arrest for execution. My department head, Nikolai Gribin, knowing what was in store for me, said: “Good night, old chap. Try to take it philosophically.” I always dreamt of phoning him in Moscow to say: “Nikolai, I did what you suggested. I took it philosophically.”
I escaped to Britain a few days later.
1999 Kamila Shamsie (b 1973)
In any part of the world where Eighties music had a foothold, 1999 began in precisely the same way at bars and private parties, under the stars and over car stereos: with Prince singing his 17-year-old hit 1999. For those of us who’d grown up with that song the expectation of fin-de-siècle madness that Prince had conjured up was almost overwhelming, placing that year under pressure to be distinct from everything that preceded it. For me, it was.
My first novel had been published in the last weeks of 1998, only months after I left university in America, and so 1999 felt like the first year in which I was part of “the real world”, a student no more, with one book in the bookshops and another one already in the editing stage. If I’m honest, it didn’t seem like “the real world” so much as “the dream world” — growing up in Karachi I had always wanted to be a writer, and I’d also wanted to live my life in Karachi and in London (a city I knew as a place of summer holidays). Being published in London gave me the flimsy excuse I needed to start spending large chunks of time in that city without giving up Karachi as my primary residence — this itinerant life, which started in 1999, would continue, with America added in to the mix, for the next eight years. So it was a beginning, of sorts.
The novel itself was about a boy in Pakistan growing up under a military dictatorship. It was meant to refer to Pakistan’s past but that October, when I was back in Karachi, General Musharraf became President Musharraf and history started to look far more cyclical than linear. Two days before Musharraf’s coup I had been awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature — but suddenly there was no Prime Minister, and all plans for the official award ceremony were scrapped. In the early days of a military dictatorship you’re never quite sure how blatantly oppressive the new regime is going to be, and I recall some anxiety in my household about this novel of mine, so recently in the news, with its dreams of democracy. Compared with Pakistan, England seemed a largely apolitical place — the plans for the Millennium Dome appeared more pressing than the Kosovo war.
1999 was also, of course, the summer that the Kargil War unfolded between India and Pakistan. Weirdly, I don’t recall thinking very much about it, except for the extra frisson it brought to the India-Pakistan match in the Cricket World Cup, which India won.
The other great face-off was between the long-anticipated Star Wars: Episode 1 and a shiny newcomer, The Matrix. I was firmly in the Matrix camp. But the ultimate shiny newcomer of the year was Apple’s brightly coloured iBook — I wouldn’t succumb to Applemania for another few years, but the seeds were sown. In computing terms, it now seems the dial-up dark ages.
That was also the year I heard of Harry Potter, from an adult who insisted it wasn’t just for children; it was the year I briefly interned at Penguin and got my hands on a novel called White Teeth in its manuscript stage; it was the year I was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, which was at the time a first book award, along with Sarah Waters and Peter Ho Davies (the eventual winner).
What strikes me most now is how I laughed off George W.Bush’s entry into the US presidential primaries. It was a sign of how weak the Republican Party was, I insisted — surely even Bush realised that Al Gore would win. Of course, many would argue he did. But that’s a story for another year.
1999: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ( 1977)
It was my second year in America as a student and I was babysitting for an affluent Jewish family. Each day after classes, I would drive my tiny beat-up Toyota hatchback to the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia called the Main Line. It startled me, how close the Main Line, with its stone homes and healthy trees, was to West Philadelphia’s boarded-up buildings, trash-littered streets and air of desolation. So I discovered the kind of poverty I had not quite imagined existed in America, perhaps because my idea of America was still very much conditioned by The Cosby Show.
I also discovered African-American literature. I fell in love with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I read a short story, Sonny’s Blues, by James Baldwin that made me weep. I spent a lot of time worrying that the kids I babysat – brilliant and affectionate children – did not always understand my non-American English. I was often homesick. I learned about calling cards: which was cheapest for calling Nigeria, which would cut off your calls after a few minutes. I also felt a political hope about Nigeria that I had never really had before, because a civilian government was in power for the first time in almost two decades and there was a sense that the country was holding its breath, keeping silent and hoping. Or so it seemed to me from the outside.
I read Nigerian news on the Internet. I had only just discovered the Internet – before I left for America, I thought computers were the same as word processors – but it had become increasingly important to me, improving my typing, providing sites for school research and making me feel that home was not so far away.
2009 Armando Iannucci (b 1963)
This was the year that politics got unreal. You’d think that, with Obama in the White House, and a tectonic plate-shifting election looming here, the year would be one in which political developments would have a real impact on our lives. Yet, as we head towards 2010, I can’t help detect a feeling from everyone around me that we just don’t take the game of politics seriously any more.
Cameron looks like he’ll be Prime Minister soon, but no one’s that excited by the prospect. Obama makes his great rhetorical strikes for common understanding abroad, but everyone seems too distracted to be impressed. Maybe, with global warming looming and financial meltdown only narrowly averted, we all feel that politicians are just not quite powerful enough to deal with the big issues any more; that there’s a tide in the affairs of men that will engulf us irrespective of who’s in charge. Maybe, too, with the MPs’ expenses scandal, that last conspiratorial suspicion we all had that the whole damn lot of them are up to no good suddenly seemed confirmed.
My 2009 was dominated by a political fiction. In the Loop is a war comedy featuring Peter Capaldi as the vein-throbbing No 10 attack-dog, Malcolm Tucker. In the film he and his minister, Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander), take on the US Government in Washington in the lead-up to a Middle Eastern military strike. The film came out in April, but took up my whole year. We started in Salt Lake City in January, at the Sundance Festival, picked up an American distributor, and then bobbed back and forward across the Atlantic attending US promo tours and premieres, building up to a release in the States in July. The cycle doesn’t end. In the Loop comes out across the Continent later this year and Australia at Christmas. I have spoken to so many people about this film I’m not sure it would not have been easier just to visit people’s houses and talk them through it.
It was odd launching a piece of made-up nonsense into a world where political reality was no longer being treated seriously. The two started mingling. Jacqui Smith’s husband charged porn on his wife’s expenses a week before audiences saw Simon Foster sit in a Washington Hotel worrying if he watched porn whether it would show up in the register of members’ interests. Alastair Campbell saw In the Loop and said he wasn’t Malcolm Tucker and, anyway, backroom Downing Street spin doctors fabricating malicious gossip about opponents happened only in crude films — a week before Damien McBride resigned from Downing Street for doing just that.
The effect of touring my film has been to completely disengage me from the real political and cultural world, as I tumble in and out of taxis and airports. 2009 has rushed past me. I never saw Tate Britain’s recreation of William Blake’s sole public exhibition. I was dying to find out why there was so much fuss over The Hangover but that curiosity was never sated, and Tom Holland’s book Millennium looks interesting but remains unread.
But, as I’ve tarted round the globe with my political fiction, I’ve noticed an odd narrative take shape. As people’s reactions change, they hint at a disbelief in the real political world. At Sundance in January, the week Obama entered the White House, US journalists kept asking me if I felt In the Loop was way too cynical for these times of hope. By July, when it was released, the same journos were telling me how appropriate the film seemed given America’s mood of pessimism. Journalists asked me at the start of the year whether I’d missed my moment by bringing out a war film six years after the invasion of Iraq. Now they tell me how timely it seems, given the hawkish noises Obama is making about Iran.
I’m left with a definite impression of just how cynical, pessimistic or, at best, unimpressed we’ve become as we view the political landscape. A sense that as the real figures on a real stage bicker and backbite, there is nothing to be done but twitter away in our own world of unreality.
Cheltenham Literature Festival: 60 years of life, love and change9 10 2009