Adam Gopnik Q&A: “My childhood hero was, inappropriately, James Bond”

The author and essayist on London in the 1890s, Beatles trivia, and James Bond.

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Born in Philadelphia in 1956, Adam Gopnik is best known for his work in the New Yorker, and books including “Paris to the Moon” and “At the Stranger’s Gate”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting beneath a round Eames table that my graduate student parents had somehow acquired, while my mother rolled out strudel dough in a tiny apartment in a Philadelphia housing project. My older sister Alison and I snatched at the hanging edges and nibbled them beneath the table.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was, inappropriately, Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I envied Bond his breakfasts, his sea-island cotton shirts and his possession of Fifties London. I’d add Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip films, who go to Italy and Spain and eat well, pretending to be James Bond.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

I’ve been reading a biography of the Victorian journalist, philosopher and self-assigned “husband” to George Eliot, GH Lewes. It made me realise how much roomier Victorian manners were than we pretend. It’s terrifying to find a congenial figure from the past so fully forgotten.

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

Right now: Frederick Douglass, the great ex-slave and leader of the heroic abolition forces in 19th-century America, and Bayard Rustin, the great gay, black organiser who actually, bus by bus and sandwich by sandwich, organised the March on Washington in 1963. Both were radicals of the real – determined to change the world by actually changing it, not by dreaming.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Beatles trivia, I think I could, well, master. 

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

London in the 1890s, before the Oscar Wilde trial. There’d always be room at the table for one more minor comic essayist. I love the décor of that time better than any other, and the spirit of the banter too.

Who would paint your portrait?

Whistler: I hope he would attenuate my physique while dandifying my features.

What’s your theme tune?

I’ve been imagining myself as the host of a morning radio programme since I was six. Right now, its theme is Brad Mehldau’s beautiful jazz version of “Blackbird”.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

My father told me, “Never underestimate the other person’s insecurities.” I’ve never gone wrong following it, but have forgotten it, painfully, from time to time.

What’s currently bugging you?

The reality that America is run by a man with insecurities so absolute that they can never be placated, only watched as they turn to democracy-destroying rage.

When were you happiest?

Joy is a liquid, happiness a solid. I recall Christmas morning in 1966: it snowed and I didn’t have to go to work in the avant-garde play I’d been shanghaied into. 

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

I came to New York intending to be a songwriter. I wish I’d pursued it single-mindedly, having learned since that pretty much every goal gives way to perseverance, no matter how ill-shaped one’s talents.

Are we all doomed?

Yes, ultimately, mortality being the shaping fact of life that we spend a lifetime neatly pushing aside. And yet before it arrives, we manage to be happy anyway. 

Adam Gopnik’s “In Mid-Air: Points of View from Over a Decade” is published by riverrun

This article appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history