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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.