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Interview: Christopher Hitchens

How is your campaign to have the Pope arrested progressing?

It's outrageous that people like myself, Richard Dawkins and Geoffrey Robertson are taking this on. What are law officers, and police departments, for? But we will do it if they won't.

Do Europeans overestimate how religious the US is?

Yes. The number of people who identify as "none of the above" has doubled in the last few years. And it might well double again soon.

Are there any good arguments for religion?

The best ones argue that there can't be an uncaused cause. But even if it was valid, this wouldn't get you further than deism.

What can we expect from the book that you are currently writing on the Ten Commandments?

One of the great questions of philosophy is, do we innately have morality, or do we get it from celestial dictation? A study of the Ten Commandments is a very good way of getting into and resolving that issue.

What about your most recent book, Hitch-22 - why did you decide to write a memoir now?

First of all, I was asked to. And I was just approaching 60, which does make you retrospective. So I was probably in the right mood.

Which memoirs did you turn to for inspiration?

Arthur Koestler's Arrow in the Blue, along with the memoirs of Claud Cockburn and James Cameron's Point of Departure. And then of my "lot", so to speak, Martin Amis's Experience is the one to beat.

You recall your feuds with Gore Vidal and Edward Said. When does a political disagreement turn personal?

With me, it doesn't. I don't make these things personal, but if someone else does then I'm willing to say "alright". No one could have annoyed me more by their political misreading than Martin, in Koba the Dread. He doesn't know all that much about the history of Marxism, so I could have done without that.

Several chapters are devoted to your Trotskyist youth. What attracted you to the left?

The name. It was the left opposition to Stalinism, capitalism, imperialism - and war, of course. The intellectuals associated with the International Socialists seemed to grasp that point.

Would you say you're a neo-conservative now?

I'm not a conservative of any kind. A faction willing to take the risks of making war on the ossified status quo in the Middle East can be described as many things, but not as conservative.

When you were at the Nation, Ed Miliband was your intern. What are your memories of him?

We talked a lot about the old left and his father's distinguished role in it. His brother's middle name is Wright after the socialist C. Wright Mills, a great friend of Ralph's.

What do you make of David Cameron?

He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, "What do you think of him?" My answer is: he doesn't make me think.

How scared should we be of Sarah Palin?

Not very. She's a straightforward cynic and an opportunist. She's made a fortune, she'll make another, but she's not actually going to do the hard work of trying to build a movement.

And what do you make of Obama's presidency?

It's quite clean. The people working for him are relatively straight and honest. But what he's finding out is that the power of the presidency is very slight. There are all kinds of things that are just not under his control.

If you hadn't been a writer what would you have done?

I'd have been someone else. It's what I am, rather than what I do.

Do you ever wish you'd gone into politics?

I did want to run for Parliament. Tavistock Labour Party could have had me if it wanted.

Is there anything you regret?

In the 1970s, I wrote a lot about Zimbabwe for the New Statesman, opposing the Smith government and the British indulgence of it. I met Mugabe a couple of times in the course of that. I could tell there was a dark side to him and I ought to have said more about that than I did.

Do you vote?

Of course. I vote and I do jury duty.

Was there a plan?

There wasn't a plan but I had two very strong yearnings. One was to write and the other was to move to the United States.

Is there anything you miss about Britain?

There are things I like, such as the Wye Valley.

Are we all doomed?

If we don't start thinking as if we are a permanently endangered species with no supernatural protecter, then yes, we are doomed.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis