Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Kazuo Ishiguro, Brexit and global Britain

The Nobel Prize-winning author's strange, restrained fictions are political in the best sense. 

Kazuo Ishiguro, who was deservedly awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on 5 October, is not a writer who writes more than he has to. He is not a journalist or cultural critic. “Screenplays I didn’t really care about, journalism, travel books, getting my writer friends to write about their dreams or something. I [was] just determined to write the books I had to write,” he said in 2005.

But in the immediate aftermath of the vote for Brexit, he published an essay in the Financial Times in which he expressed “anger” at what had happened. He was angry that “one of the few genuine success stories of modern history  – the transforming of Europe from a slaughterhouse of total war and totalitarian regimes to a much-envied region of liberal democracies living in near-borderless friendship – should now be so profoundly undermined by such a myopic process as took place in Britain”.

It was a surprise to read his swift response to Brexit because he is not an explicitly political writer or commentator in the style of, say, Ian McEwan. But his strange, restrained fictions are political in the best sense. They explore themes of historical amnesia and unreliable memory, of guilt and delusion, as well the untruths we tell ourselves in order to cope with disappointment and loss – personal loss, national loss.

The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize in 1989, is set in the 1950s and narrated by a butler called Stevens, reflecting on a long life of service and repression. At one point, early in the book, Stevens muses on the question of national greatness. “We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this is a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective. And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’?”

It is a pertinent question, as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, when Britain was recovering from the trauma of two world wars. Clearly, the Brexiteers have a heightened sense of the greatness of Great Britain. Yet they seem to believe that this greatness lies in the future, as a buccaneering, free-trading “global Britain”. This is so much nonsense. Britain will surely never have more influence than it did before the fateful decision to vote to leave the European Union.

As Mr Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but has lived in England since he was five, understands, nations like people can make foolish decisions and be in denial about their consequences. They can commit acts of self-harm. “Global Britain” is one of the cant phrases of our age. Before the Brexit vote, Britain was already global as one of the dominant states in the EU, with enormous reserves of soft power and acting as the “Atlantic bridge” linking Europe to the United States.

Praising Mr Ishiguro, the Nobel committee said that in novels of “great emotional force” he “has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. This would do nicely, too, as a summary of the present state of play in Britain: a country haunted by the past that has an increasingly illusory sense of connection with the world. 

The woes of Scottish football

Hard to believe it but Scotland were one of the pre-tournament favourites at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, an event for which England did not qualify (just as they did not qualify for the 1974 finals in West Germany). In the 1970s, Scottish footballers were among the finest in these islands. In 1967, Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup, with a squad of players who grew up in and around Glasgow.

Today, Scottish football is in deep gloom after the national team failed once again to qualify for a major tournament. Coach Gordon Strachan bizarrely blamed genetics for Scotland missing out on the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. “What I do know is that genetically we are behind,” he said. “In the last campaign we were the second-smallest squad behind Spain… Genetically we have to work at things. It is a problem for us.”

This is absurd. There is nothing wrong with the physical health or size of Scottish sportsmen and women. The problem is cultural and institutional. Sport is an engine of globalisation and a source of national pride. The SNP government should play a more active role. It should invest in sports infrastructure, in and out of schools, and create centres of sporting excellence. The alternative is to watch Scottish sports teams keep failing – or to blame genetics. 

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist