Preview: Julian Barnes on Christopher Hitchens, David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch

The novelist gives a rare interview to Soumya Bhattacharya for the New Statesman Centenary Issue.

The Booker prize-winning author Julian Barnes has given a rare interview to Soumya Bhattacharya for the New Statesman centenary issue, out today, in which he shares his views on contemporary British politics and culture, recalls his time as a young literary editor on the New Statesman in the mid-to-late 1970s, and talks life, love and loss.

 

On Christopher Hitchens:

“He was the most brilliant talker I’ve met and the best argufier. At the Statesman he was largely gay, idly anti-Semitic and very left-wing. Then ripple-dissolve to someone who was twice married and had discovered himself to be Jewish and become a neocon. An odd progress, though he didn’t do the traditional shuffle to the right; he kept one left, liberal leg planted where it always had been and made a huge, corkscrewing leap with his right leg. I enjoyed his company but never entirely trusted him.”

On David Cameron and the Coalition Government:

“It seems perfectly possible that David Cameron will be remembered as the prime minister who ‘lost’ Scotland and took Britain out of Europe. But then, this is a government with rare powers: who thought you could manage to produce a fall in unemployment combined with a triple-dip recession?”

On culture in England:

“This has always been a comparatively philistine country [...] this has made the arts – and many artists – resilient and ingenious in the face of poverty.”

On Rupert Murdoch:

“Murdoch once sacked me when I was on the Sunday Times [...] I do believe in grudge-bearing [...] I think his effect on public life in this country has been malign.”

On death and euthanasia:

“I don’t want to be a nonagenarian waking up with broken ribs because I have been artificially resuscitated against my will.”

On the New Statesman, his first desk job in Fleet Street:

“I felt deep loyalty to the magazine and couldn’t believe my luck that I was working for it. There was even a ping-pong table in the basement.”

“They [Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Martin Amis] were very confident talkers. I was virtually mute in those days. I would sit through editorial conferences praying that Tony Howard [then editor] wouldn’t nod encouragingly in my direction.”

On Fleet Street in the 1970s:

“I found it a friendly and collegiate world, if over-male; and, yes, where you were going to drink was a daily subject of debate.”

To read the full interview, buy a copy of the New Statesman Centenary Issue, on sale now

Julian Barnes, photographed by Emma Hardy for the New Statesman.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.