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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The Brocialist’s Dilemma: joining the revolution inevitably leaves others behind

We have to remember that other people have priorities, which might clash with our hero-worshipping of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

It was Tony Blair who got me used to compromising my values for the sake of party unity and electoral success. After I voted for him in 2005, I knew in my heart that I could talk myself into voting for anybody if it kept the Tories out. Sure he’d planned and waged a war of aggression with disastrous consequences for millions of people, but he hadn’t privatised the railways. I’m not an Iraqi, I’m a guy who travels by train.

Having taken the Blair masterclass in compromising ideals, watching Jeremy Corbyn getting dragged over the coals for his various missteps all feels rather trivial. I found myself wondering just what it was going to take for Corbyn, who I don't dislike and will vote for, to outrage me to the extent that I’d want him gone.

Hell, I voted for the man who brought in university fees. I voted for him, and I knew as I did it that –had I been born just a few years later – there’s no way I’d have been able to go to university. I don’t know what Corbyn might do that would be a compromise too far given those I’ve already had to make over the years.

Left wing politics will always come with compromises, but what is telling is who has to make the biggest ones. We all want a unified and functional opposition, maybe one day a shot at government, but can we expect Jewish party members to simply ignore the failure to handle antisemitism in the party, or women to ignore so much about recent Labour selections?

It seems, at times, that what matters in Corbyn’s Labour is the new found sense of ideological purpose, rather than the trickier practical business of ensuring everybody is fairly treated and properly represented.

This brings us to the titular Brocialist Dilemma, because this is something that many of the men in the party will face whether they realise it or not. “Brocialist” is a generally pejorative term that tends to be applied to pugnacious white men piling into left wing or radical politics with earnestly held good intentions but little empathy and experience – and even less awareness of their lack thereof.

The Brocialist Dilemma is one born of coming into politics by choice looking to Fight the Good Fight, rather than having the Good Fight thrust upon you.

The dilemma is that if you are engaging with politics because you are an idealist looking to solve problems, which problems do you solve first? And whose problems do you push to one side in order to solve those problems? Where do you make your compromises?

You have to figure out who you’re willing to go to bat for and who you’ll let fall behind. There is no guide book for this, no master list of all the things that need to be fixed in left wing politics before it can be wheeled out like a massive cake to bring about global utopia.

We are all raised on stories of heroes leaping to the aid of the downtrodden for altruistic reasons. Plenty of us want to be that hero, but the shock of finding out that our personal intervention is not the tipping point in the struggle that we hoped it might be can be disheartening.

Nobody expects to answer the call to action only to be told to take a seat while the beneficiary of your munificence tries to find you something that you are qualified to help with.

More importantly than the disheartening effect on the enthusiastic would-be hero is the potential damage that can be done to the body politic itself. When thousands of energetic crusaders rally to the cause – intent on saving the world – but decide that your particular issues within that are less important, that your insistence on pursuing the agenda you got into politics to pursue is damaging, then we can see all kinds of unpleasantness.

It is not a coincidence that when you get huge numbers of highly engaged new people piling into a political cause that they bring with them what can charitably be called complications. I choose that word carefully because I’m still optimistic enough to believe that – for all the bile and spite being hurled around the Labour party in recent months – everybody is still, on a fundamental level, trying to do right.

Jeremy Corbyn is a huge draw for brocialists in much the same way as Bernie Sanders was in the US. This isn’t a complaint; you do want a leader who can motivate people, who can draw people into politics. Corbyn comes across like the wise old shaman who turns up in stories to guide the hero on the start of his journey to greatness. He is Obi-Wan Kenobi to a generation of left wing men who can see the world is an unjust place but don’t know exactly what they need to do to change it other than joining The Rebellion.

If there is a solution to the Brocialist Dilemma, perhaps it lies with Corbyn. What lesson can we take from the man himself? Is it to never compromise, to stick to your principles against all the odds? Perhaps. But also, and I would say more importantly, it is patience. Corbyn has spent decades campaigning for the causes he believes in, standing on picket lines, going on demonstrations – not always popular, though often right in hindsight.

At no point in his long and storied history of activism did Corbyn read the first volume of Das Kapital on his phone before getting bored and calling somebody a Blairite on Twitter.

If people can find the patience to learn, and the patience to teach, then perhaps we might all make it through this period in Labour’s history in a spirit of mutual respect. Otherwise we’ll be spending the rest of our lives calling each other names.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture