Historians never convince when they claim history has a mind of its own. God knows capital is powerful, so much unnecessary suffering is structural, and we all need an analysis, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as courage – or action. At a typical theatre conference at the Young Vic in the 1980s, I remember being so exasperated by the privileged gloom that I intervened to suggest that if the Arts Council could only appoint a decent leader, the fortunes of the subsidised sector would be transformed.
Needless to say, this possibility enraged speakers from the Workers Revolutionary Party, who insisted that no single person could affect anything. After a screening of the film Carla’s Song a few years later, an audience member said that if the next US president was a good guy, he might not follow Ronald Reagan’s support for terrorism in Central America. The director Ken Loach countered with real fierceness: “There are no good guys, there is only the system.”
It’s interesting, therefore, to read that John McDonnell – who in 2015 told Vice magazine “Let’s be clear, we don’t believe in leaders” – has changed his mind. It turns out that the exceptional individual may perhaps achieve something after all – if his name is McDonnell.
Surely, without question, profound change always comes up from below. But change needs to be embodied and articulated. In all walks of life, astonishing people force through good outcomes which would never have happened without them. To insist on this isn’t, as revolutionaries claim, to be bourgeois. It’s to be human.
Hastings, a painter’s town, has gained a literary festival. Sixty per cent of its attendees had never been to one before. So you can use a trip to Sussex in September as a chance to eat the fabulous fish and chips at Maggie’s, then visit the rebuilt pier. Lately in commercial hands, it has almost nothing commercial on it, at least for now. There is one small café built on top of a larger function room which looks as if it has never been used and never will.
The result is stunning, especially as you walk out to the slate-grey sea, where the bare boards stretch away into infinity. You feel as if you’re walking on air. But its scale presents a problem to the poor Jerwood Gallery down the road.
This year, there was a Mark Wallinger on show, some sort of abstract swimming pool, made of string, which had obviously taken a lot of effort. But how can any conceptual artist begin to compete with a pier which is effectively a £14m art installation?
Lovers of crime fiction are groaning as the Man Booker Prize condescends to admit the genre. It only took 50 years. But the judges didn’t seem to notice that the everyday police plodder they had selected for this honour wasn’t half as thrilling as another book already on their long-list.
The Mars Room is centred on a criminal mystery withheld until the final pages. Written by the great Rachel Kushner, the novel effortlessly generates almost unbearable suspense. It’s hard to breathe as the full implications of one woman’s destiny in a California penitentiary are revealed. The Booker Prize needs thrillers more urgently than thrillers need the Booker Prize.
In recommending a film she liked, Pauline Kael once warned you should be careful whom you went to see it with, because its charms were so particular that the wrong companion might unintentionally destroy them.
That’s how I feel in recommending the strange novels of Edward Wilson. He takes real-life events and penetrates them with fictional characters. To me, the result is weirdly convincing. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, will have to revise his dewy-eyed account of the Falklands adventure if he troubles himself to read Wilson’s lacerating version of Thatcher’s lawless dishonesty in South Atlantic Requiem. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly MI5 did to make Harold Wilson’s premiership so turbulent, then you can’t do better than pick up A Very British Ending.
The author is a Vietnam vet who, the book-jacket says, lives in Suffolk – the county to which so many spies and military retire. The only time I went to Aldeburgh Golf Club, you couldn’t move for ex-spooks, grazing. I didn’t notice Edward Wilson, but he must have been in the corner, listening hard.
In 1982, I wrote a play about a Unesco conference, which centred round an arrogant Indian novelist in Mumbai who was more colonial than the colonialists. When I later met VS Naipaul, it was the first time I realised that almost nobody resembles their public image. He could not have been more charming.
Further, Naipaul went on to become great friends with Roshan Seth, the actor who had supposedly played him in A Map of the World. At a Faber drinks party that same year for his 60th birthday, Philip Larkin was chatty and sociable, receiving us all one by one and apparently relishing the opportunity to get out and about. When I left at 9pm, Larkin was still going strong, the life and soul.
A later correspondence with Andrea Dworkin, whose writing I admired, revealed her to be witty, gentle and perceptive. How the Dworkin I knew tallied with her public caricature as a harridan I have no idea. Nor did she. I’m not claiming that, to their intimates, Theresa May is a laugh a minute nor David Attenborough a swine, but I do believe that you don’t know anyone whom you know only through the media.
“I’m Not Running” by David Hare opens at the National Theatre, London SE1 on 2 October. It will be broadcast to cinemas on 31 January