2012 in review: The New Statesman's best interviews

Ricky Gervais on atheism, Boris Johnson on "lefty crap", Hilary Mantel on Bring Up The Bodies, Stuart Hall on Englishness.

Welcome to the sixth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on identity, is here). 

A crop of new writers, comedians, activists and political figures entered the scene in 2012, and a crop of old ones re-emerged. Here are some of our best interviews - click the headlines to open them in a new window:

Terry Pratchett: Sex, death and nature

For more than 40 years, Terry Pratchett has used science fiction and fantasy to craft subtle satires. But the onset of Alzheimer’s has forced him to confront a stark question – what will happen when he is no longer able to write? He talks to Laurie Penny:

I Shall Wear Midnight, features a set piece in which the young heroine has to prevent the suicide of a man who has recently beaten his unmarried, pregnant, 13-year-old daughter so badly that she has miscarried – and bury the foetus. Harry Potter it ain’t. Yet the kids gobble it up, because one thing that Pratchett understands is that just because kids like stories doesn’t mean they like to be lied to.

So, the possibility of young readers seeing their favourite author on television talking frankly about his own death worries him not a whit. “Scaring the kids is a fine and noble thing to do,” he says. “I’m happy to tell kids to prepare for a short life. But it works like this – you can take them through the dark forest, but you must bring them out into the light.”

The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

A portrait of the author of the Booker-winning Wolf Hall. She talks to Sophie Elmhirst about memory, class, Bring Up the Bodies and the unsettled writer’s life.

Mantel wondered if she was being too demanding. But then she thought that to adjust her style in any way would be not only a loss, but patronising (“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”). Some will be lost along the way, but she doesn’t mind. “It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.”

She can sound arrogant, Mantel, assured of her abilities and candid about them in a way that seems peculiarly un-English. But even the arrogance is purposeful. It is one of her pieces of advice to young authors: cultivate confidence, have no shame in being bullish about your ideas and your abilities. She was patronised for years by male critics who deemed her work domestic and provincial (one, writing about "A Place of Greater Safety" – the French 800-pager – dwelt on a brief mention of wallpaper). So she makes no apologies for her self-belief.

Ricky Gervais: “There shouldn’t be a word for atheism"

Spending time in the US has only made Ricky Gervais a more outspoken atheist. He tells Robin Ince why that's important.

"My atheism might be higher-profile than other people’s atheism, but it’s not high on my agenda. But it’s the thing they always pick out. I can do 30 tweets of my cat, a bath pic, a Karl [Pilkington] quote, plugging. The one tweet that’s . . . I mean, I don’t even know what an atheist tweet is. Sometimes they’re scientific tweets that oppose some of the “facts” in the Bible. And I get: “Why do you keep going on about atheism?” One of [the questions] is “Why are you obsessed with God if you don’t believe in him?”, and I want to say: “I’m not obsessed with God, I’m obsessed with people who want to do things in his name.”

Another one is: “Why are you obsessed with only the Christian God?” How many times have I stated that I don’t believe in any God? There are possibly 3,000 so-called deities. If we’re talking about monotheistic gods, I believe in one less god than you. When they say, “Why don’t you believe in God?”, I often say, “Which one?”

Chen Guangcheng: “Facts have blood as evidence”

Chen Guangcheng was forced to flee China in May after years of persecution. His advocacy on behalf of women and the poor in the face of China’s one-child policy has made him an enemy of the state. He talks to Ai Wei Wei.

The old approach began in the 1980s and continued until the end of the policy in 2002. It had slogans: “Sterilise when you should or lose your roof.” “Abort when you should or lose the house.” This meant that [the state] could seize a family’s home and food and resell them cheaply. If you refused to undergo ster­ilisation, your house would be destroyed by bulldozers and tractors. They would use a wire rope, called “seed rope” at that time, and this would be tethered to a beam on a tractor. One pull, and the houses would collapse. This is what they mean by the old approach.

Some people committed suicide. The government would ridicule such acts of desperation. The person in charge of the local party committee and the family planning committee has said that suicide was no problem – “I won’t take away the bottle if you want to take an overdose; I won’t take away the rope if you want to hang yourself.” So the 2002 law hasn’t changed much. The destruction of the value of human life has continued.

Ed Miliband: He’s not for turning

How will Ed Miliband remake capitalism when there is no money to spend? He speaks to Jason Cowley.

How do politicians capture that sense of thrilling possibility and make of it something of lasting value? How do you make the restructuring of capitalism a collaborative, patriotic, nation-building project? “I think that’s exactly the right way to put it,” Miliband says, tilting forward in his chair. “I think the Olympics is a very important moment for me – it was very important for the country most of all, but important for me because I think, for the first time in my life, I got a sense of what my dad [the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband] used to talk to me about, about the wartime spirit, his time in the navy. You can’t have a permanent Olympic Games, but I think there’s something about ‘what kind of country do we feel like’. Do we feel a sense of obligation to each other? Do people feel the benefits and burdens of life are fairly distributed? Those things are partly economic but they go deeper than that.”

Stuart Hall: “We need to talk about Englishness”

Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall is the éminence grise of the British intellectual left and one of the founders of cultural studies. He coined the word “Thatcherism” and, aged 80, he remains one of our leading thinkers. He talks to Jonathan Derbyshire.

“Suez marked the end of an illusion about the end of imperialism,” he observes. “Hungary marked the end of an illusion – which I never shared – about the Soviet Union and communism. If you were on the left, you had to be independent of those two extremes. That’s the space I identified with. There were people in the Communist Party who were shocked and torn by Khrushchev’s revelations about what had gone on under Stalinism. There were a number of independent left people like me, many of them from the third world. And then some critical people from the Labour establishment, Labour intellectuals. They all came together at the Socialist Club.”

José Manuel Barroso: Why is Britain so closed to the EU?

Britain will be reduced to the role of a “Norway or Switzerland” in Europe if Eurosceptics push us into leaving the EU, warns the president of the European Commission, talking to David Miliband.

The new narrative for Europe should be about the need to have a responsible organisation, the need to be able to defend our interests and promote our values, like human rights. In the 21st century, this has not yet been able to mobilise people’s minds and hearts. What I want to underline – and this isn’t a way of escaping my own or the Commission’s responsibility – is that, for this to succeed, it has to be done also with leaders at national level. We have to . . . make the case for explaining in a rational – but at the same time passionate – way what we have to lose, globally. And we may be in the margins of irrelevance if we don’t do things together.

Boris Johnson: “I’ll tell you what makes me angry – lefty crap”

The London mayor regrets ever having agreed to an interview with Jemima Khan.

One of Boris's advantages over Ken might be that he knows every journalistic trick. He is extraordinarily conscious of how he will appear in print and of how his comments will be reported. Unlike Ken, he points out, he has no need for a Matthew Freud PR push at public expense. He is constantly vigilant, on the lookout for the tripwire. "That might have been my cagey look," he says, when I question his expression, "my mind scooting very rapidly forward, thinking: 'Where is she going with this one?'" If he's so canny, what does he think the headline for this interview will be? "The headline is obviously 'The man to win - why I back Boris, by Jemima'. That is the headline."

Ken Livingstone:“The world is run by monsters”

Jemima Khan finds the Labour challenger spoiling for a fight, with opinions on everything from “clinically insane” Margaret Thatcher to the “moral imbecile” running the BBC.

"I've got so many schemes ready for them," Ken Livingstone says with some glee. By "them" he means the Tories, with whom he will have to work if he wins the London mayoral election in May. "If I am re-elected it will be a devastating blow for them. They are halfway through their term. They want to get re-elected. Are they going to plough on with a strategy that clearly doesn't work?"

“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page” Hilary Mantel tells Sophie Elmhirst. Portrait by Leonie Hampton
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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.