Jonathan Rowson Q&A: "I would love to have been at the Fischer-Spassky match"

The chess grandmaster talks Mahatma Gandhi, Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains and an infamous Cold War chess match. 

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Jonathan Rowson was born in Aberdeen in 1977 and made his chess debut aged 11, becoming a grandmaster at 22. He is a philosopher and founding director of the research institute Perspectiva.

What’s your earliest memory?

Hiding a large oval rock in a cupboard under the stairs, because dragon eggs need time alone to hatch.

Who are your heroes?

My grandfather, who took me around on his scooter, and my elder brother Mark, who was better at everything and more confident. Bono featured, as did Nelson Mandela. These days I’m drawn to courage of all kinds and grateful for Greta Thunberg.

What book last changed your thinking?

Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains helped me see slavery as capitalist logic at its most insidious. Unapologetic by Francis Spufford helped me to appreciate Christianity from the inside. Both are exquisitely written.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Mahatma Gandhi. Transformative political change has to be grounded in praxis. We are awash with critique, and have some vision, but we lack method. We need a 21st-century global version of Gandhi’s Satyagraha – a method of holding to the truth.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I wonder if Mastermind perpetuates the wrong idea of what is important. What people know matters less than the manner in which they know it; their curiosity, creativity and epistemic agility.

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

Reykjavik, 1972. One of the best things written about chess is George Steiner’s New Yorker essay on the Fischer-Spassky match during the Cold War. I’m curious to know what I would have written.

What TV show could you not live without?

I could live without TV, but Poldark made me happy to cry.

Who would paint your portrait?

Vanessa Chamberlin.

What’s your theme tune?

The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon”.

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

“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things” – Rilke.

What’s currently bugging you?

The lack of philosophical curiosity in public life. For instance I think the left-right political spectrum is a conceptual zombie in a world where ecology, technology and finance are the main influences, but we don’t seem to know how to kill it.

What single thing would make your life better?

Perhaps not being a type 1 diabetic, but in my heart of hearts I feel everything is unfolding as it should be.

When were you happiest?

Happiness is not the important thing. Joy, struggle and meaning are closer to what matters most, and I feel all those things when I’m writing.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A watercolour painter and jazz pianist on a universal basic income, living in St Ives.

Are we all doomed?

No, but we’re in a bit of a pickle. Climate collapse is symptomatic of an exhausted social imaginary. We face a species-wide learning opportunity to make better sense, restore patterns of legitimacy, build capability and realise what matters. l

“The Moves that Matter” is published by Bloomsbury

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing