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16 September 2020

“We have moved into the age of irrationality”: Robert Harris on a world being driven apart

The author and former Fleet Street political editor on Silicon Valley, Keir Starmer, and why politics has become a “grim comedy”.

By Michael Prodger

Robert Harris had a good lockdown. When it started in late March he was 20,000 words into his latest book, and by the time it eased in June he had a fully fledged novel in his hand.

V2 was written in strange times, and chronicles strange times. It is a cat-and-mouse thriller set in the dying days of the Second World War as Hitler sought to regain the ascendancy by pummelling London with a “vengeance weapon” in the form of a supersonic ballistic missile – essentially a repurposed space rocket.

Harris, now 63 and despite being a former Fleet Street political editor, columnist and author of 13 novels, was not sure at first if he could finish the book. Given the circumstances, he asked himself: “Who is going to be interested in this?” He managed just 100 words a day. “I did seriously think that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he told me over Zoom. But then, after a series of dream-filled nights, he gave it a concerted go and worked four hours a day, although “at noon I would reach for a drink”.

The novel sits alongside Harris’s other Second World War fictions, such as the million-selling Fatherland (1992) and the Bletchley Park spy tale Enigma (1995). Like them, V2 combines detailed research (into such niceties as missile payloads, movable launch sites, and the distillation by German soldiers of the V2’s fuel into schnapps) with atmospheric descriptions of a cowering London and the forests on the Dutch coast where the rockets were launched.

His characters meanwhile are, as is the way in his books, driven as much by their flaws as their convictions: in this instance, Kay Caton-Walsh, an officer in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) who distances herself from an affair with a married airman by crossing the Channel into danger; and Dr Rudi Graf, a fictional colleague of the real-life rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who oversees the rocket launches from Holland.

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The genesis of the novel came in 2016 when Harris read an obituary of Eileen Younghusband, a WAAF officer who had been sent to the town of Mechelen in Belgium during the winter of 1944 to help track down the V2 launch sites. From Eileen grew Kay, who is one of eight young women sequestered for safety in a bank vault shortly after the Allies liberate Mechelen from the occupying Germans.

Armed with a slide rule, her job is to use the launch time and detonation time of the missiles to calculate the parabola of their flight paths and so pinpoint where they were launched. The women have only six minutes to complete their calculations and give the RAF time to scramble aircraft to bomb the positions before they are cleared.

“My initial thought was this is a great story – eight women take on the might of the German army,” Harris said, “but it ended up being a book about the futility of war.” Younghusband was told that her work had led to the destruction of two launch sites, though, in fact, none were ever hit.

Nevertheless, “the V2 was a pointless weapon in a way, yet it was unstoppable”. From September 1944 more than 3,000 were launched, primarily at London, Antwerp and Liège (but also at Norwich and Ipswich). They killed an estimated 2,700 civilians in London; one of the worst losses of life came when the Woolworths store in New Cross, south London, was flattened, killing 160. The V2s caused death and terror but they didn’t change the war.

They did, however, change the peace. Part of the book is situated at Peenemünde on Germany’s Baltic coast. It was there that a huge technical and research facility was built by the Nazis to develop the rockets. When von Braun and his team started their experiments in the early 1930s their aim was to develop a rocket for space (“The first man to walk on the moon has already been born,” says von Braun in the novel). But they needed funding, and when Hitler supplied it an idealistic project became a military one.

“If a state gets behind an idea and resources are unlimited and you crowd into a space all the experts, then you get a kind of quantum leap in technology,” noted Harris.

This happened in three specific places during the war – Peenemünde, Bletchley Park and Los Alamos, New Mexico. “Our modern world was forged in these three places,” he says. “They gave us rockets, computers and atomic power.” What’s more, he believes, “we are still dealing with the consequences of these wartime advances. There were no moral qualms at Bletchley but obviously there were moral qualms about what was going on at Peenemünde and Los Alamos.”

Technological developments in Silicon Valley today, which build on “the breakthroughs made at Bletchley”, bring their own disquiet. This is part of the reason Harris finds it hard to be optimistic about the world: “Things that should have made things better are having the paradoxical effect of making them worse. Things that should have been so liberating about the internet and social media, interconnectedness and bringing us all together, in fact are driving us apart.”

We should, he thinks, have reached “the epitome of the age of reason, of us being able to sit anywhere and with our phones have access to all the world’s knowledge. We should be moving into a new era of enlightenment and what do we find? It’s conspiracy theories and cranks. We’ve moved into an age of irrationality. We are punch-drunk with it.”

When I asked Harris if these febrile political times ever tempt him to return to political journalism (he covered politics at the BBC and the Observer), he was clear. “I’m so glad to be out of it. When I was writing a column, which I often did for Conservative newspapers, there was a sense that you could have a dialogue with people who didn’t agree with you. You could almost think you were changing someone’s mind. Now I don’t feel that anyone’s mind is changed.” Today’s readership, he reckons, is all about affirmation: “You read columnists who you agree with and they reinforce your belief in yourself and you shy away from columnists who are just going to annoy you. I am as guilty of this as anyone. I don’t want to hear that Brexit is going to be wonderful or that Dominic Cummings has a plan.”

For Harris, the point of writing political comment has gone. “About 18 years ago I finally went through the looking glass and became a novelist” – and he’s not going back.

Nor will he admit to screaming at the television news. “I did up until about a year ago,” he said. “Everything changed for me with the general election last year. It was a crazy election, given the choice we had. Up to that point I couldn’t help but think people would change their minds on Brexit or something sensible would happen. But when the country gave Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority I thought, you know what, I’m in my early sixties and if this is what people want then fine. So I regard it now with cynical, amused detachment.”

He has yet to become a copper-bottomed stoic – a philosophy he knows well from his trio of novels about Cicero and the Roman republic. “I’m just stunned that the country has ended up with Johnson as prime minister. That is something I simply didn’t think would happen.” Political life, thinks Harris, “has become a grim comedy”. “I have voted in 12 general elections – and only been on the winning side three times – and I felt after every time I lost that there was a sort of wisdom in what the British electorate had decided, a wisdom of the crowd. I have rather lost that.”

Harris was a prominent New Labour supporter and advocate of Tony Blair until the Iraq War. Then he began to disengage from the party and skewered Blair in The Ghost (2007), by casting him – diaphanously veiled – as Adam Lang, a preternaturally smooth, entitled and doubt-free former prime minister with a serpentine wife. Nevertheless, there is a touch of nostalgia when he talks about pre-2016 centrist politics. “We used to complain when it was just Blair, Major, Cameron, Clinton, Bush – everything was sort of the same, it was boring. Well, beware of what you wish for. Now every day you wake up and it’s like living in a fantastical novel.”

Could Keir Starmer be the corrective? He might have been, thinks Harris, “if the game were being played under the old rules; my worry is that the old rules no longer apply. For the left, the moment we moved into the culture wars things became tricky because there aren’t enough votes, not enough peopled fired up by the culture wars. They make the right appear more attractive to centrist voters, so Starmer has a big problem there.”

I wondered if he might turn the current imbroglios to profit by writing a version of The Ghost with Johnson as the central figure? “It’s a cliché to say it but when the politicians have become such extraordinary figures fiction withers and dies in the face of them. The sort of novel I write depends on plausibility: if I tried to write a novel in which Donald Trump became president and carried on in the way he has or where Johnson would be PM everyone would say no, this doesn’t obey any plausible rules.”

Plausibility is another reason Harris will stick with historical fiction. He acknowledges, “historical novels are always about the contemporary world” – a malign Europe lobbing projectiles at a solitary and dauntless Britain is certainly how some see things – but earlier times offer other consolations. “The moral issues are clearer in the past quite often,” he said. “You escape people’s prejudices and preconceptions. There’s a great satisfaction, a frisson, in thinking the past might have been like this – being in the woods as the Germans launch these missiles, being in London as they fell.”

For Harris, the appeal of this alternative sense of order is no dereliction of duty to living in the present. “As Martin Amis – I think – once said: ‘How can you live with unmediated reality?’ In fiction certain laws of plausibility, logic, morals can apply – that’s what people turn to fiction for. We have lost that in reality.” It is what he will continue to provide, for himself even more than for his readers.

This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid