I want to be a camera

Listening is more important for a writer than the active imposition of "a greater truth".

One of the many novels I read, when young and impressionable, was Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. It's one of his Berlin stories, immortalised in the minds of men of a certain age by the image of Liza Minnelli straddling a chair in the film derived from them, "Cabaret". That life is a cabaret, old chum, is something I'm sure Johann Hari considered all too true last week.

I'm almost ashamed to admit that the reason I remember the book more powerfully than I do any of his other works, or even Liza Minnelli on the chair, is that its first page contains the line "I am a camera". Twenty-five years at least passed between my reading that novel, and this -- that which you see before you now -- an attempt to craft a career from words. I am here, you are reading this today, because I won a prize, called the Orwell Prize (I won it for my blogging on Conservative Home). The prize is awarded to the person who has "done most to turn political writing into an art", in the words of the people who award it. I'll come back to that reference to "art" in a moment.

It is still not possible for me to describe myself as a "writer". I am sure many of you will agree. I hope you take comfort that I cannot bring myself to even use that word inside my own head. I'm just a statistician, mildly obsessed with swimming, who sometimes writes things down.

I think I write because I am perplexed by most of the human beings around me (residual Only Child psychology), so I listen to what they say to one another, I listen to the words they use, and without always succeeding, I try not to theorise about why I'm hearing or seeing those things; and thus my fixation on that Christopher Isherwood novel. I want to be a camera. I am often puzzled by a dream, in the words of the beautiful song, and this bewilderment carries over to the snatches of disconnected words I hear around me every day. What are those patches of overheard conversations most like? They are dreams, the dreams of other people.

That George Orwell also inspires me is hardly a shock; he's a hero to many Tories because he refused to back down in his opposition to totalitarianism, simply because it was sometimes prefixed with the adjective "socialist". The real reason he interests me, though, is related to the writing-as-camera idea; that and the clear love he evinced in his writings for the English working class. It is so easy to scorn this love, to write it off as an affectation. For a homosexual man, of course, the confounding is multiplied -- my unchecked admiration for the men who build our roads, our houses, is not unaffected by my aesthetic sense, and I am aware of that. But the company of such men provides the chance to hear honesty in speech. I think there is more honesty to be found in a scuzzy East End pub on a Friday evening than in any boardroom or editorial office or writer's garret in the land. Nothing is dressed up, or hidden, for the sake of a "greater truth". It is this reason why the left is so angry with the working-class, and in government devoted such political energy into destroying their leisure environments. Working men remain -- just -- immune to the imprecations to speak only acceptable, liberal "truths".

So: I should be -- I am -- aghast at Johann Hari's actions: he "interviewed" people by meeting with them, and then (after the interviews, when he was writing them up), he ascribed direct quotations (of the "And then he said...." form) into the mouths of his interviewees. Unfortunately, regrettably, many of his interviewees had not used those words when speaking with Mr Hari. He lifted them from books, articles they had written. He did so in order to illustrate "their greater truth". Both the Tory and the empiricist in me have a massive problem with that.

But there remains, even for the person who wants only to record what is said around him, an element of art. And this is the only iota of sympathy I have for Mr Hari. I do write down what I hear, usually within seconds of hearing it. But could I take the witness stand, and swear on my life that I have written a totally verbatim transcript? Let me try it now. It is 10pm, I am in the pub closest to our flat, and I am hearing:

- No but the reason
- I did sell it
- what a lovely dog! he's smiling!
- you work abroad in the first place

Even that patch wasn't quite in real time -- my fingers won't go that fast. This is where the "art" (specified in the prize) might come in. The art is not in the "bigger truth". You deconvolve the multiple inputs into single-sensed passages, and add notes of scene-setting, and your own psychological conclusion:

- "I did sell it [my car]. The reason is that there's no point in going to work abroad if we're going to hold onto the life we've got here."
His girlfriend is bored. I feel strongly and at once that she does not want to move abroad, and that it is far from the first time they have had this conversation. Her gaze has moved from him, onto the dog that's been lurking under their table:
- "Oh, what a beautiful dog! Look, he's smiling!"
The man will move to Spain. His woman will remain behind.

The "art", if there be any art here at all, lies in the little truth. The straining to breaking point of a relationship on its last legs, the desperate displacement activity ("Oh, what a beautiful dog!") tell me, anyway, more about the life of that couple than any "greater" truth I might try to strap onto the scene, to persuade a reader that my loudly proclaimed worldview is the one worth supporting. I might "only" be describing an anonymous couple, but I think the principle would be the same in any situation.

My fundamental dogma is that words are real things, with power, in the Universe. Their power terrifies me, actually: they deserve respect. But then I'm not a writer. I just try to write things down.

 

 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser