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Julian Barnes Q&A: “I might have made a useful priest, perhaps in rural France”

The novellist talks life at the New Statesman 1975-1980, the French diarist Jules Renard and Brexit.

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester in 1946. His novel “The Sense of An Ending” won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. He worked as a literary editor and TV critic for the New Statesman in the 1970s.

What’s your earliest memory?

I deeply mistrust all my supposed “earliest memories”. The first authentic memory I have is being held up by my father to watch the funeral of Queen Mary go past.

Who are your heroes?

“No monsters, no heroes” was Flaubert’s slogan – though he was talking more about subjects for the novel. Of course, it’s safest to have dead heroes and heroines, who can’t suddenly disappoint.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Probably Yanis Varoufakis’s Talking to My Daughter About the Economy – though my previous understanding of economics couldn’t exactly be described as “thinking”.

Which poliical figure, past or present, do you look up to?

As the great French diarist Jules Renard put it: “Politics ought to be the finest thing in the world: a citizen in the service of his or her country. Yet it turns out to be the lowest.” But I much admire Garibaldi.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Life at the New Statesman 1975-1980.

What TV show could you not live without?

The first two series of Heimat; the first two series of Mad Men; the first two series of Borgen. Of late, the Six Nations rugby.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucy Mackenzie, who specialises in tiny still lifes, but has done portraits. As the picture would be very small, I couldn’t be accused of vanity if it hung on my wall.

What’s your theme tune?

Far too often during the Six Nations it is “Flower of Scotland”. Also, recently, Bob Lind’s “Elusive Butterfly”. I don’t boast of these auditory apparitions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“You must allow others the right not to like your books.” And: “Remember that as we grow older, we get hardened in our least acceptable characteristics.” I can’t say I’ve done very well with either so far.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit, and the delusional incompetence of those supposedly in charge of it. The deliberate running-down of the NHS. Increasing extremes of poverty and wealth.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’ll opt for some time in the future, in some quasi-Scandinavian reality, where the previous question will have been sorted out and the next has become the norm.

What would make your life better?

To know I was only halfway through it.

When were you happiest?

You’ll have to apply to my (posthumous) biographer for the answer to that.

In another life what job might you have chosen?

I might have made a useful priest – perhaps in rural France in the 19th century. Looking, listening and seeking to understand, like a novelist. But I might have been tempted to take notes in the confessional.

Are we all doomed?

In the short term, yes. In the longer term, definitely. But to quote Renard again: “We’re put on earth to laugh. We shan’t be able to in purgatory or hell. And it wouldn’t be fitting in paradise.” And those who laugh live longer. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, “The Only Story”, is published by Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.