Naipaul, Orwell and Stamford Bridge

Last weekend I was in the south of France for a friend's 40th birthday party, held at his villa in the hills above the old town of Mougins. It was cold but sunny, with intense blue skies and the most wonderful clear and penetrating light - so thrilling after the grind and gloom of central London in winter. The party had been organised for a long time. It was enjoyable, but the whole thing also had the feel of a pre-credit crunch event: ludicrously cheap flights to Nice on easyJet; conspicuous consumption; easy frivolity and high living . . . and then the long, gruelling, inevitable hangover.

On the flight home I finished Patrick French's authorised biography of V S Naipaul, The World Is What It Is. I was reminded of one evening in the late 1990s when Naipaul invited me for drinks with him and his charming second wife, Nadira, at their London flat. He talked then of how as a young man adrift in London, feeling excluded and restless, he would hurry to buy the New Statesman as soon as it was available each week and of how he had dreamed of writing for the magazine, which he eventually did.

I had recently interviewed Naipaul and, to my surprise, the encounter had gone well. Before the meeting I was warned about his hauteur, intolerance and distaste for journalists. In the event, I found him elegant if austere, partial to flattery and gloriously dismissive of most other writers: "Rushdie? Who is this man you ask me about? Is this the man who tries to write like the blind Irishman? Why do you ask me about this man?"

But he was also self-laceratingly honest and he listened hard. It turned out that he liked what I'd written about him, hence the invitation to his flat, and a second invitation shortly afterwards to lunch with his agent, Gillon Aitken. There's something wonderfully mysterious about Aitken. He is very tall, courteous, patrician, a translator of Pushkin, and, like a spy from another era, has the ability to withhold and reveal in equal measure.

Over lunch he asked if I would be interested - hypothetically, old chap - in writing the authorised biography of Naipaul. It was a fascinating question, to which I had no answer. At the end of the lunch as we ordered coffee - I asked for a macchiato, which prompted Aitken to exclaim, "How recherché!" - my host looked at me challengingly and, his voice quickening for the first time, said: "Could you do it? Could you really do it?"

One Thursday afternoon shortly afterwards, I received a phone call from Naipaul. Would I like to come to stay with him for the weekend in Wiltshire? "Yes, of course," I said. "When?" "Tomorrow," he said. "Can you come tomorrow?" I said that I could not. "All right," he said, "I'll speak to you soon." But I did not hear from him again for five years.

With the exception of Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, French's is the finest book of its kind I have read. He shows us Naipaul as he really is: tortured, brilliant, harsh, contradictory, cruel, unforgiving, fearless, sexually tormented . . . He also writes with authority about the work, perhaps the most complex, provocative and demanding body of work by any postwar British writer. And he gets one important thing about Naipaul that's often ignored - he's funny.

This time last year, I was working on the 100th issue of Granta, an issue guest-edited by the novelist William Boyd, signing off proofs on the magazine's redesign while preparing for the launch of a new website, I had joined Granta only a few months before and was well set there. Now, I'm editor of the New Statesman, and once again working on a proposed redesign of a magazine - this one. I often ask myself, to quote David Byrne, "How did I get here?" The short answer is that I was tempted away from Granta because the NS has been a constant in my life as few other magazines have been. My father used to read it under the great editorships of Kingsley Martin and Anthony Howard, and it was probably the first adult magazine I can remember trying to read as a schoolboy, if one excludes those of the . . . er, more pictorial variety.

The NS was founded in 1913, and I don't think that there is another British magazine with an archive of political and cultural writing as rich, impressive and as varied as ours. Just recently, I was looking through some old issues - we are in the process of digitising our archive, which will soon be available to all users of our website - and paused to read an early offering from George Orwell. "He is very keen," an editor had written in the margin of the text. "Will write more. Money not an issue."

Our new co-proprietor, Mike Danson, is, like Geoffrey Robinson, a football man. He supports Manchester United (he's from the north-west, so that's allowable) but has season tickets at Chelsea. I recently went with him to the Arsenal game at Stamford Bridge: good, comfortable seats in the East Stand. Except that, before the game, I was warned by Mike and his friend Craig, an Arsenal fan like me, that I should not celebrate if Arsenal scored: "It could turn nasty." I remember being told something similar when, in the Seventies, I first saw Arsenal play Spurs at White Hart Lane and stood with the home fans on the Shelf. But haven't we just lived through the embourgeoisement of English football? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Jason Cowley's book "The Last Game: Love, Death and Football" will be published in April 2009

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.