Disco love: young lovers at the Hammersmith Palais. Photo: Rex Features
Show Hide image

Teenage kicks all through their life: why men avoid growing up

A boy gets to play; a man doesn’t, at least not officially. A man is obliged to act out the part scripted for him, all the while pretending that there’s something fulfilling in being promoted.

If we are to believe Dante, love moves the sun and the stars (“l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle”); Sappho compared it to a mountain wind, and Aristotle believed it came about when a single soul inhabits two bodies, but back in the real world I was more inclined to go with songs like “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (the Rolling Stones, double A-side with “Ruby Tuesday”, 1967), or “Somebody to Love” (the Great Society, 1966; Jefferson Airplane, 1967). It was sex that mattered to my fifteen-year-old self, even if I tended to gloss it as love. I persuaded myself that I was in love, on average, about five or six times a week – with my mother’s friend Beryl, say, or the Pinta Girl, or the actress who played Doctor Who’s assistant, Zoe; but love, in any scenario I dared to imagine, was mostly just code for desire. Mostly. The one drawback was that my ideas about such things had been formed by radio – my mother’s radio, in fact, which, for the first twelve years of my life, was permanently tuned to the unending sentimental education provided by Pick of the Pops and Sing Something Simple on the BBC Light Programme. Here, sex was rarely, if ever, mentioned. It was always love.

Listening to the radio wasn’t a lifestyle choice. It was a declaration of loyalty. The TV sat in what we had recently started calling “the lounge”, and was used mostly by my father; my mother spent very little time in that room, at least when he was at home. She would clean it, and keep it tidy and, in the winter, she would get up at six and make a fire, but her true domain was still the kitchen, where she lived like a ghost from the 1950s with what she still called “the wireless” – and, because everything that was real in our lives happened in the kitchen, it was radio that provided the white noise and the soundtrack to my daily round, a constant wash of mostly vintage love songs, all never let me go and you belong to me and, worst of all, I don’t have anything, since I don’t have you . . . My mother knew most of them by heart: “You’re All the World to Me”; “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (the Perry Como version, not Elvis); “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”.

At that age, I didn’t know that she was hanging on to a fantasy that she couldn’t do without, a fantasy, not that the many-splendored love her marriage so clearly lacked existed out there somewhere, but that, underneath it all, behind all the fights about money and the tears and the abuse, she and my father still loved one another as they had in the beginning (a time she never spoke about, oddly enough, though he would, when the mood was on him: how they met, the presents he brought back from his RAF postings, their honeymoon in Aberdeen, of all places). In extremis, he would even grow maudlin about it all, declaring that he’d never loved any woman but her, though he’d had every chance back in his RAF days, and even now, the women down at the club were throwing themselves at him. Those sentimental nights provided us kids with a sorry spectacle that my mother never stayed up to see, yet in spite of all this, in spite of the fact that she had every reason to feel bitter, or to have dismissed the whole many-splendored thing long ago, she could still be brought to a halt, in the middle of cooking, or a Saturday baking session, by some old favourite with lyrics that, in any explicable world, would have stuck in her craw. She would stand by a window, or over the cooker, ladle poised above the split-pea soup, singing along – she had a thin, but oddly sweet voice – and it didn’t matter if I rolled my eyes, she just went on singing, a true believer, if not on the workaday level, then at least in the abstract.

On the one hand, the impulse to mock this nonsense was both natural and pressing – and yet, at the same time, there was a sense that something real was concealed behind it all, something that, if it were allowed to sour, would leave a gap, not just in my mother’s, but in all our lives, an emptiness that nothing else could possibly fill. Where we lived, everything was cooked in lard, white pudding was a Saturday-night treat, the men all smoked eighty a day and drank themselves into oblivion every chance they got, but the real killer, the thing that truly sapped your strength, like a leech sapping the blood from your heart, was disappointment (synonyms: failure, defeat, frustration), a word whose etymology – from Middle French desapointer, “to undo an appointment, to remove from office” – barely hints at its destructive power, but, given a moment’s further analysis, does express something of the pain of workaday defeat that people in that world endured. If a soppy love song could ease that sense of defeat for a while, who was I to mock? The fact that, on occasion, during my clever-clogs years, I did mock now shames me more than I can say.

***

The older I get, the happier my childhood becomes. I still know about the times when my father got drunk and came home covered in blood (“bleeding like a sheep”, he’d say, beglamoured by the reek and the heat of it), the nights when I had to climb out of the window to escape his drunken rages, the hours of waiting, wondering where he was, and whether he’d spent all the money: I know this, but I don’t feel it now the way I feel those Saturday afternoons in our various kitchens, the table or fitted counter sheeted in flour and three trays of fairy cakes in the oven, the back door open to let out the steam, blackbirds singing in the neighbour’s lilac tree and Andy Williams on the radio singing “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”. On the radio, love was a many-splendored thing, but the marriages I was privy to seemed more like war zones.

I don’t want to suggest that matrimony was necessarily a tragic affair – some of our neighbours’ marriages seemed quite functional, if somewhat routine; nevertheless, in the workaday world, it is wedlock that is most likely to offer the occasion for life-threatening disappointment. Wedlock, or parenthood – and, when it’s not caused by poverty or ill-health, most of the misery inflicted by parents is a result of their marital unhappiness. Growing up, I blamed my father for everything, overlooking his very obvious wretchedness, and it wasn’t until much later that I began to wonder what wedlock had cost him, married as he was to a dutiful and sexually repressed Catholic of a certain class and generation. I cannot rule out the idea, now, that he could have been a painfully frustrated sensualist, a husband cheated of what might have been the only means he had to express his love; his passions, his inner boy’s desire for joy and sex curdling into violent frustration. That frustration might not have been the sole cause of his drinking and gambling, but it’s not very surprising that he should take refuge in the sins he knew to escape the shameful and ugly desires that had once seemed the most natural thing in the world (within marriage, of course). Wherever my father ended up in his mind or in his spirit, it may be that, to begin with, the poor man just wanted to play. Maybe they both did, but they couldn’t quite elude the stare of the little yellow-eyed, jaundiced god that had been implanted at the back of their minds. I remember, once, much later, I found a stack of dirty magazines hidden in his wardrobe while I was searching for a tie to borrow and he came in just as I picked up a copy of Knave from the top of the pile.

He didn’t say anything then, he just turned round and went back downstairs to the 3.15 at Chepstow or whatever, but that evening, in the Hazel Tree, where we used to go to play crib, father and son together, he told me quietly not to take any notice, he never read that stuff, it was just something a mate from work had passed on. For a moment there, it all seemed to balance out: they had both been cheated, not just by the class system, as such, but also by the sexless, loveless moral apparatus that, as I grew up, I increasingly came to think of as societal, an apparatus that existed for no other reason than to stifle in its subjects any sensual pleasure and any kind of sex, other than the plastic-fantastic couplings of porn, or the bowdlerised, abstract crooning of Tin Pan Alley.

No surprise, then, that, as we took the floor at the Catholic Club disco or the end-of-term dance, we didn’t hear any songs that talked about the slow attrition of mistaken commitment. Songs where the heart resembles nothing so much as a knob of lard tossed into a skillet and skittering around on the hot steel, squeaking and fizzing as it gradually diminishes to nothing. That was what everlasting love meant to me, before I even got on to the dance floor. It was a pose, an attitude – and I wanted nothing to do with it. Fat chance of that.

Sometimes, though only in my most unguarded moments, I can still think of Annette Winters as my first love. At fifteen, she was tall, slender, very dark, an intelligent, sly girl possessed of what I think of now, though I didn’t think of then, as a kind of debatable beauty. She refused to be pretty in the ordinary sense that made girls attractive in our neck of the woods, but the main thing that drew me to her was that she did what she wanted, come hell or high water, and that was rare. In the town where we grew up, the will of girls and women was continually sapped, from cradle to crone, boyfriends and husbands taking over where parents left off, but so far Annette had come through with all her faculties intact. Maybe it wasn’t love so much as admiration that drew me to her, but I was drawn – and there were times when she was drawn to me, too, though if what happened between us could even be described as a relationship, it was very much of the on-off variety. When it was on, we spent hours lying around on my bed or her parents’ floor transforming endless foreplay into a form of torture (there being no after to this fore, so to speak; Annette was, after all, a good Catholic girl); when it was off, it was because she had suddenly remembered that I wasn’t her type.

Not being her type included a wide variety of faults, from having light brown hair to being “bookish”, features that I thought neither here nor there. In fact, the whole “type” thing was just so much nonsense, in my enlightened fiteen-year-old view. It might have been interesting at another level, where it really told you something about a person. For example: is your type the pretty, loyal “secretary” who is always in the background in old American detective movies, or the mysterious, but slightly too existential woman who turns up in his office unannounced and will, almost inevitably, betray him in the final reel? Though, come to think of it, that doesn’t help much either: I usually fell for the hat-check girl you see in passing when the detective drops by the fat man’s nightclub to give him the once-over, or maybe the femme fatale’s younger sister, excluded from the grown-up stuff and left to sulk by the pool in her swimsuit or her immaculate tennis whites. Whenever Annette went off on one of her not-my-type deals, I would sit in the town library compiling questionnaires like the ones that used to appear in newspapers and women’s magazines.

What’s Your Type?

Answer these ten questions to find out if the girl you’re with is really the one for you . . .

1. You are invited to meet one cast member from Pal Joey. Who do you choose? Is it:

a) Rita Hayworth? b) Kim Novak?
c) Frank Sinatra?

2. The girl you’re with has a new
hobby. Is it:

a) Playing the piano b) Hill-walking
c) Ikebana

It’s pitiful, the depths to which we sink when abandoned. At fifteen, I didn’t know much about much, but I did know that the one thing worse than endless foreplay is no foreplay at all.

We had all seen enough of our parents’ lives to feel that marriage was a trap constructed, not by women and girls, but by “The System”, to keep us in order. That was the term we used as a kind of shorthand for a job at the Works and your name on the housing list and the ubiquitous conspiracy against human wildness. The pleasures of married life weren’t too visible in Corby in the early 1970s and, even if you weren’t the political type, it was clear that marriage tied people to a life that suited the bosses. The joy of being a parent wasn’t much in evidence either: what kids saw, growing up, was the worry, the strain, the sad business of not having enough money for the televised Christmas ideal, and the shame of not being able to say so. But there was one difference between boys and girls on that score: if he is paying attention, the boy has a chance at a kind of negative freedom, because he has not been trained since infancy to believe, as the girl has, that wedlock and the workaday are not just the norm, but as close to the ideal as can be expected. For as long as he could hold out, any boy might still have a few years of relative freedom.

It was luck and nothing else that kept me from falling into the trap. Luck, in the form of Annette Winters’s notion that there was such a thing as her type, and that I was not it. I might have been growing into a cliché boy’s own world where the basic premises were a) have sex with as many attractive girls as possible – by attractive, I mean not attractive to oneself, necessarily, but attractive in the eyes of others – and b) keep moving so you don’t get trapped – but I don’t want to suggest that there was anything cold or cynical about all this.

More of us actually liked the girls we knew than were prepared to admit it, but we only had to look around to know that, whatever we thought or felt when we were alone, romantic love – disco love – as constructed by the movies and TV and pop songs, was a carefully baited trap, intended to lock us for life into a routine of drudge labour and joyless domesticity, with nothing to take refuge in but alcohol and “the football”. This wasn’t about “fear of commitment” (that cliché); it was about common sense. We had not forgotten that the word “commitment” can be used in two, by no means contradictory, senses: i) being prepared to engage fully in a (disco) relationship, and ii) being contained in a psychiatric medical facility. We had to cram what living we wanted into a few good years, because work was a life sentence and marriage was a lifelong battle with someone terminally conditioned for nest-building and social propriety – and the biggest irony of all was that the pleasure part, the sex part, the exquisite play that got you into all that hassle in the first place started to evaporate the moment you carried your bride over the threshold.

So, when people wonder why boys want to stay boys and never grow up, as if there really were some difficulty to that particular question, I find it embarrassing, because the answer is obvious. A boy gets to play; a man doesn’t, at least not officially. A man is obliged to act out the part scripted for him, all the while pretending that there’s something genuinely fulfilling in being promoted to Deputy Sales Manager or being chosen as Employee of the Month by other men who, while not visibly smarter or more able than him, get paid a whole lot more.

Men are police officers, husbands, company directors; men work in middle management and fret about sex and their position on that supposedly recreational squash ladder. Men lay down the law and take up arms. Men, to the boy I was, were dull, neuter, slightly stale when you got up close and infinitely tedious. The burdens they carried with such absurd solemnity seemed to me entirely fictitious and the presumption of authority that defined them to a standstill was utterly alien to how I imagined a just world to be, alien and pointless, and painstakingly justified, for each individual man, by a self-perpetuating system of titles and obligations that were unfailingly referred to as “the real world”.

So there we were: trapped. Boys in striped shirts and basketball shoes listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Doors in our bedrooms, knowing it couldn’t last. Boys smoking dope on the patch of waste ground behind the garages; boys fiddling with hooks and zips in front rooms and parked cars; boys going out alone in the cool of a summer’s dawn to swim on that stretch of river only they know. Men in waiting, all, tagged with the sorrow of knowing pretty well what is to come and not wanting any part of it. Manhood is what the boy wants to avoid, as he grows into the mould, but he doesn’t know how, other than by continuing to be a boy. Moving on, every time love turns from serious to solemn. Deferring that dread moment when it comes time to settle down and open a savings account, putting a little by every year till he’s got enough to make the down payment on a house that looks just like every other jerry-built house on the estate. Laughing at the disco love lyrics on the radio and Top of the Pops.

What would real success look like, for a boy who chose not to be that kind of a man, but grew at his own pace into the creature he could have been, had his future not been decided for him years ago? The boy’s only answer is a desperate one, a beginner’s guide to clutching at straws, but it’s all he has and what it mostly consists of is refusal. Pyrrhic and half-imagined as it is, his only victory is to let go and move on, for as long as he can, as decently as he can, for the thrill of that first meeting and the dark pleasure of the goodbye that keeps the heart in play, no gods above, no larks, no love song finer, only the drama that staying cannot confer, the exquisite and inevitable affirmation of every time we say goodbye.

All this might be a little crude, but I don’t think it misrepresents the way my generation and class of boys thought and behaved, except in one key detail: that is, the question of “whatever we thought or felt when we were alone”. I know that, in my case, the drive to have sex and move on was based on a fear that, in all probability, quite a few of my classmates shared: the fear, not so much of The System as of my own profoundly romantic male nature.

It took me a long time to work it out, and even longer to acknowledge it, but, looking back, I see that my teen self, contrary to appearances, had, in fact, been converted by my mother’s radio into a hopeless romantic – and for all I know, if Annette Winters hadn’t been so finicky about who might or might not have been her type, I could be married to her now, and wondering how in God’s name I’d got myself tangled up in that particular mess. According to Oscar Wilde, “marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”; the trouble was, if you lived in a two-up two-down council house in Corby New Town, keeping a marriage alive took more imagination than most people could spare – and if any of us had been possessed of even the most basic intelligence, we would have seen right away that, in a society that worked so hard to keep us from loving, or even liking, ourselves, expecting us to love somebody else – not a type, but an actual person – was a bit much to ask.

This is an edited extract from John Burnside’s “I Put a Spell on You”, published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

“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