Peter Hook: Bernard and I could reconcile. "On the end of a pair of duelling pistols."

Rob Pollard speaks to the former Joy Division and New Order bassist.

Peter Hook was the bass player and founding member of Manchester’s influential post-punk band Joy Division. After the death of their iconic lead singer Ian Curtis, the remaining members went on to form New Order, an electronic band that had a string of 80s hit singles. Hook left New Order in 2007, and is now touring with his band The Light, performing tracks from the Joy Division catalogue. His new book, Unknown Pleasures, provides an insight into the time he spent with Joy Division, detailing their humble beginnings through to their premature ending.

Hook is known for his unique, esoteric playing style which completely redefined the bass guitar. Echoes of both Joy Division, the architects of post-punk, and New Order, designers of synth-pop, are still heard in music to this day.

Here, he talks about his relationship with Bernard Sumner and Ian Curtis’ genius.

You’re currently touring with your band The Light, playing Joy Division songs. How’s that been going?

Yeah, we’ve been playing constantly now for two-and-a-half years, and I must admit I never expected to get another career out of it. I’m very, very happy and very, very gratified by the reaction to playing it. In fact, the only people who don’t seem to like me playing it are Bernard [Sumner] and Stephen [Morris], which is a story in itself I suppose. They don’t mind when they play it but they just don’t want you to play it. They played New Order and Joy Division songs before me but they seem to have forgotten that and just criticise me for playing it. Some journalists have asked Bernard why he doesn’t want me to play it even though he plays it, but there’s been no explanation. But Bernard is a law unto himself. One of the problems in New Order was that it wasn’t "do as I do" it was "do as I say".

Do you think Bernard and yourself will ever be able to reconcile your differences?

Yeah, probably on the end of a pair of duelling pistols, or maybe in a boxing ring. That would be good for charity wouldn’t it? Like Liam Gallagher challenging Robbie. It’d be nice. Winner takes all, and all the winnings to charity.

Atmosphere is a truly remarkable song. Was there a sense in the studio that track was something special?

What you have to bare in mind is that it gradually got better. So, from the moment Bernard and I started after the Sex Pistols gig up to the end of Joy Division, the songwriting, when you look at it and put the songs in chronological order, had improved immeasurably. By the time you got to Novelty and then you moved into Transmission, and all the tracks on Unknown Pleasures after the EP, the tracks were amazing. The weakest song we did was one called The Drawback and yet I play that now with The Light and it sounds fantastic [laughs]. So all the tracks that we thought were weak, like Sound of Music, Something Must Break, The Kill, I play those now and think they’re just as good as the others.

Atmosphere is an amazing song but it does always have that connotation that people use it at funerals. It’s heartbreaking to watch Control and see it finish on Debbie screaming and then Atmosphere starts; it rips your bloody heart out. It’s like at Tony Wilson’s funeral as well, they chose Atmosphere to be played there. It was awful. The emotional power of it when it’s coupled with grief or loss is unbelievable. I don’t think Ian meant that either because Atmosphere was written very early on in our career, before he was ill or before he had his mistress and his problems. We ended up sitting on it for quite a while and then recording it for Licht und Blindheit which was the limited edition Sordide Sentimental. We never actually released Atmosphere as a single in England, it was only released as a single in America.

You mention your work improving over time but one of my favourite Joy Division tracks is Warsaw.

Warsaw is absolutely mega. It’s quite an odd thing really because when you look at the four [An Ideal for Living] EP tracks in isolation - Warsaw, No Love Lost, Leaders of Men and Failures - they are all rocking songs. We have done four gigs on the trot, we did Lisbon, Florence, Milan and Rimini, and the audience in Rimini were quite quiet - they weren’t really fired up - so the answer was to play Warsaw because it gets them going. Warsaw and Failures get everybody going; it really does kick-off when you play them. Failures was the only song that Ian Curtis actually wrote musically. He saw the way the music should go and influenced its direction. The EP was so different to the demos we’d done before. It really did surprise me sometimes how much we’d improved our songwriting. It’s interesting because the better songs we wrote were knocking off the punky ones, like Reaction and all that stuff was just consigned to the bin, but it’s funny because, when I listen to Warsaw live at Middlesbrough, some of those punky songs were actually quite good because they caught the spirit of the moment, and they caught our naivety and energy very, very well.

You mention in the book about Ian coming up with the name Joy Division. In my opinion, it’s the best name for a band I’ve heard. How important do you think having a great name is?

Honestly, you agonise over your name, you really, really do, and it’s the thing that you argue most about. It’s the backdoor test isn’t it? To test your band name out, you should go to a gig, whoever’s gig it is, and shout it out in the audience and see what it sounds like. My mum always used to say the best way to name a child was to open the backdoor and shout the child’s name out the backdoor, and if it sounded good then you were OK. I actually did that with my son. I opened the back door and shouted "Jack" and thought it sounded good.

One of the alternatives [to the name Joy Division] was The Flames From Venus. Now, if the Flames From Venus had done Unknown Pleasures would it have been anywhere near as influential as it was?

It has always amazed me that Joy Division had such a short lifespan, yet have left a really enduring legacy. You’re still influencing bands today. Do you think being influential is the biggest compliment a band can receive?

You know what, if I had to sit and count how many people we’ve influenced it is unbelievable. Between Joy Division and New Order, we must be responsible for about half the music business. It’s funny because it’s always odd when you get sued for plagiarism. We got sued by John Denver and John Denver won, which was really weird. The thing is you should never consider suing anybody because they sound like you. I would never sue U2 because a song sounds like Isolation. I wouldn’t sue the Editors because they sound like Shadowplay, or White Lies or The Cure for In Between Days, it’s something you don’t do because it’s against the way that you’re brought up. You were brought up to use influences as inspiration. The big inspiration for us was The Sex Pistols and can you imagine Johnny Rotten coming on and saying: "well I inspired you so I want some money off you". Or maybe it’s a good idea actually; maybe I’ve hit on something there!

How different is the Manchester you describe in the book compared to the Manchester I see today?

Well, I enjoy Manchester and I like it a lot, and I think having the new club in Manchester, Factory, has given me a much nicer insight and much more of a connection with it than I’ve had for a long time. It still feels a bit dirty, a bit run down, but it has some wonderful, wonderful assets, and some truly startling features. I get the same buzz and the same feeling from it that I always did, and the odd thing is, wherever you go in the world, I’m always happy to get back to Manchester. I feel very much a part of it and I’m very happy to be perceived as an ambassador for Manchester music. It makes me laugh because when I opened the Factory, I got roundly slagged off for dwelling on the past, or using the past in some way like it was a dirty thing to do. And then two years later you’ve got 225,000 people watching The Stone Roses who we influenced completely. In some ways you do feel like you’re ahead of your time dwelling on the past [laughs].

It’s interesting you mention that because there are a lot of people who dislike what you do in terms of using the Joy Division catalogue to make money now. I seem to remember a blog called Fuc 51 which was rather disparaging towards you.

Well even the rest of the bloody band, Bernard and Stephen, say it, fucking hell! I was reading that article in the Guardian where the guy was going on about "the wreckage" of my career. Now, the thing is, surely all of us, at one time or another, have been in a job where we don’t like the boss or we don’t like the way the company's run, and even though your mum says to you you shouldn’t leave because there are people out there without jobs, you have to do something for your peace of mind, and for your justice, and for your spiritualism that makes you happy in the world. Yet, nobody looks at New Order and says "he’s obviously left because he was unhappy". It’s as if you’ve got off a gravy train and everyone thinks you’re crazy for doing it. It’s as if there’s no spiritualism or standing up for yourself. I’m lucky, I’ve worked hard over 34 years and I’ve got a very nice lifestyle and I have the luxury to at least be happy in my job because I was not happy in New Order.

Regarding that blog, I did find who that was, which was quite interesting. It was just a casual acquaintance who had an axe to grind. When I confronted them it stopped.

Where do think Ian Curtis ranks in the pantheon of all-time great writers and frontmen?

I’m a bit biased because I immersed myself in Ian’s work every night, and I must admit playing the songs again has made me realise how fantastic he was. Who is he like? I think he’s unlike anyone else. I do think his style, especially the way he uses words rhythmically and in an onomatopoeic fashion, was a real surprise to me. I listened to it all the time but it was only when I came to analyse it to sing it live that I realised just how fucking clever he was. He really was a clever, clever man with words. And it’s such an art when you see people like that because there aren’t that many people, even authors, who can impress you with their writing as soon as you read it. I wish I could have sat in and got involved in his process. One of the regrets is not knowing exactly how he worked.

Can we talk about your bass playing style? I find it divides opinion. People either absolutely love it or they think you’re playing lead guitar on a bass and not being true to the instrument. Where did that style come from?

I don’t know really, it just came about. It wasn’t something I worked on or strived for. It happened because Ian Curtis heard me doing it and used to encourage me every time he heard me play like that, and it became a way of writing, using the melody on the bass to write the song. It was actually quite simple and it just evolved. If you look at the first two Joy Division LPs, the bass riffs on them are fantastic.

Joy Division writing credits were all shared equally on every track weren’t they?

Yeah, it was absolutely correct to do it that way. When we got to New Order it changed and even though Gillian [Gilbert] got a writing credit, I think it it’s fair to say that Bernard did 95 per cent of the keyboards, and I’ve seen him say that in interviews as well. She used to play what Bernard had written but we gave her a writing credit.

Your new book, Unknown Pleasures, goes in to such detail about the band that I was wondering whether you thought it may remove some of the mystique that Joy Division purists hold so dear. Ian Curtis, in particular, has a fervent following of fans who may not want to know too much.

Yeah, I mean I was aware of that because I’m writing from a different point of view, but if anything the last year has taught me what a load of old bollocks this business is. Anything I can do to debunk it and make people aware of the horrible goings on behind their favourite groups I will do. It really is a dirty business and I suppose I was very, very lucky in a way to wait until the ripe old age of 55 before I encountered its rock bottom lack of loyalty and under handedness that even your friends and so-called business associates all suffer from. So, I was aware that I could shatter a few illusions but I think as long as you balance it with an appreciation of the guy’s artistry and his creative genius it’s fine.

People do have a vision of things. It’s like the Hacienda; I’m sure everyone thinks that we all lived upstairs in a flat, like Morecambe and Wise. I am aware of this and, you look at New Order, when we split up the first time and Bernard went off, there was none of this back biting, none of this deriding each other in the press, and then in 2006 when I split the band up it seems like the fact that someone doesn’t want to work with him has really hit him hard. It seems to all stem from that. He just will not shut up. And you look at it and he’s got New Order back, he’s toured the world, he’s made millions, what more do you want? But he still wants to have a go at me saying I don’t care about my children because I tour all the time and that I’m only doing it for the money. I mean, what’s he doing it for? He’s very careful not to mention what he’s doing it for. It’s an odd insult in music to be accused of doing it for the money. It’s an insult to you and an insult to your fans. It’s like it’s hidden - we do what we do what but no one mentions the money. It’s like a dirty thing.

If there was a General Election tomorrow who would you vote for at the ballot box?

I think I’d vote for The Green Party. I’m one of those old cynics that thinks, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. David Cameron at least has an air of authority, whereas Ed Miliband, I don’t know if it’s my old age, but he just looks too young. He acts a little bit young and I don’t think it inspires confidence, certainly not from me. My father was always Labour and my mother was always Conservative, so I tended to sort of go in the middle. I always do try to encourage my children to vote and at least exercise their right. I think the county is just in such a mess financially, which has been brought about mainly by Labour, and everybody feels compromised by it. I don’t think it inspires confidence. And I think the way that the expenses scandal, even down to Jimmy Saville, all the foundations that have been built on for many, many years are really being rocked, and it is a very interesting situation at the moment from a historical point of view.

Do you not feel like Ed Miliband is the right man to lead Labour in 2015 then?

In my opinion, no. He doesn’t appeal to me and I think the fracas with his brother was very damaging for the party, and I think really we’ve just fell out of favour with the politicians in general because they come across as being very fallible and easily led. It’s something you suspected before but it’s been proven now with the expenses scandal. So there’s a lot of bridge building to do.

What are your thoughts on coalition government and how that works?

I think it was a noble gesture. Any coalition, especially where one party is more powerful than the other, it’s always bound to have a pecking order. The ideal in this world would be that we’d all get on because basically everyone wants the same thing. We all want to be happy, to be comfortable, for our children to be safe. Nearly all of us want the same thing so it should be quite a simple equation sitting down and sorting that out. I suppose it’s a very naive way of looking at it, and I suppose in a funny way the coalition seemed to be done, to me anyway, quite graciously at the time by David Cameron, to say ‘we don’t have complete control so why don’t you come with us and we can sort this out’. It was a lovely gesture but in the play-out it’s been a little bit unfairly weighted towards the Conservatives but that’s politics.

Do you feel properly engaged with British politics?

As I’ve got older I tend to read more about it, and worry more about what’s going to happen to us all. I must admit, up until about the age of 30-odd I really didn’t care. I just thought the most important thing in life was me, whereas I now realise there are many more important things in life than me. I do engage with it, especially being abroad a lot, I watch CNN and Al Jazeera and it scares the pants off you, it really does. Watching Iran and Israel jockeying for position in the way they are is a very frightening scenario and I keep saying to my wife how worried I am about it and that i should get my Ferrari but the world blows up.

I spoke to Kevin Cummins recently and he said Ian Curtis was a very shy person. How would you describe Ian?

Ian was very shy until he’d had a drink and then he really could just go like the rest of us and be quite normal and quite a handful. But Ian was a really nice bloke and what he wanted in life was you to be happy, and not just you anybody around him and he did go out of his way to try to make everybody happy and I think that’s what caused a lot of his problems to be honest.

Unknown Pleasure - Inside Joy Division, is available to buy now. For more information, visit Peter Hook's website. Peter Hook And The Light perform New Order's first two albums "Movement" and "Power, Corruption And Lies" at Koko London Thurs 17th Jan and Manchester Cathedral Fri 18th Jan.

Peter Hook about to go on stage at first performance of Closer with his band The Light. Photo William Ellis

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage