The radiance of VS Naipaul, the BBC’s class culture gap and the joys of Edinburgh

A cold-eyed scourge of liberal pieties, the author had a gift for seeing, for noticing.

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I last saw VS Naipaul in early July as he was being pushed around in a wheelchair at a 50th anniversary Man Booker Prize reception at Buckingham Palace. It was a shock to see him so physically reduced and he seemed tired. We nodded at each other. I did not know him well but we’d had long conversations in the past and, on several occasions, he’d invited me to small drinks gatherings at his London flat.

One afternoon his then agent gave me lunch to ask if I’d be interested in writing Naipaul’s authorised biography. It was not something I wanted or was equipped to do – Patrick French ended up as the chosen man, though the finished work, fair-minded and distinguished as it was, upset Naipaul because it revealed many of his hurts and torments.

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I met Naipaul when I interviewed him in the summer of 1998 at his flat. His second wife, Nadira, brought us coffee and then sat on the stairs listening to our conversation. He told me then, melodramatically, he had only “60 months to live”. He was 65 and would live for another 20 years. After my piece was published he called to invite me to spend the weekend with him at his house in Wiltshire. I accepted and asked when I should visit. “Tomorrow,” he said. But that was not possible for me and our conversation ended fairly quickly. It was many years before I heard from him again.

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Naipaul believed in the nobility of the writing life, something he inherited from his father, a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian who wrote some short stories when time allowed. Naipaul wrote lovingly about his father and his thwarted ambitions in his great novel A House for Mr Biswas.

In spite of his many triumphs – he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001 – Naipaul never forgot his early struggles and humiliations as a young writer in London, an Indian from Trinidad trying to make his way in the old imperial metropolis. “I had since the age of 12 said that I was going to turn myself into a writer,” Naipaul told me. For most of the 1950s, he was unhappy. “I was destitute. I got no replies from job applications. The BBC laughed me out of court when I asked for a little job in the talks department. The idea of a man like me asking to write for the BBC – absurd! I’m not complaining, you understand. The writer shouldn’t complain.”

In person, Naipaul exhibited pride and vulnerability. A cold-eyed scourge of liberal pieties, he had a gift for seeing, for noticing. His books are radiant with the small details of life. And he listened. I once told him that my father had begun his career as a shirt cutter in what he called the “rag trade” and travelled often to India. This interested Naipaul and on the few occasions I saw him – separated by many years – he would mention my father’s job.

As Naipaul was dying, Nadira read to him, from his own work and Tennyson’s elegiac “Crossing the Bar”. “I did this,” she told the New York Times, “because his body had gone, but the mind would not let go.” Do read him if you never have.

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Mishal Husain, the BBC news presenter with immaculate diction and a cool gaze, gave an interesting interview in the Guardian in which she said, “With a name like mine, my career would only have been possible in Britain.”

But here’s something for her to consider. Husain is the privileged daughter of a doctor who worked in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where foreign workers don’t pay income tax. Her grandfather was a two-star general in the Pakistani army. She attended private schools in the Gulf states and then in Kent before going to Cambridge University.

International and private schools, Oxbridge and a posh accent – no one should be surprised Husain is flourishing at the BBC. As it happens, I think she’s an excellent journalist. But imagine if she’d been born in Bradford, perhaps the daughter of a shopkeeper or factory worker, attended the local comprehensive and then won a place at, say, Sheffield University.

Would this Bradford-born Husain, without status and wealth and with a broad Yorkshire accent and vernacular conversational style, have been able to work her way up so smoothly at the BBC, and now be interviewing Boris Johnson, the Today programme’s favourite pantomime act, on national radio? We know the answer to that question and it is informed by what the American law professor Joan C Williams calls the “class culture gap”.

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A book of my political and cultural writing is being published in September and I was in Edinburgh this week to talk about it at the annual book festival. It’s always a thrill to be back in the Scottish capital, which I visited often during the 2014 referendum campaign, when the country was experiencing an extraordinary political awakening. The wide streets of the Georgian New Town, the grandeur of the Old Town, the high hills of the nearby countryside tempting you away and touching your heart, the cafés, the bars, the cultural conversation, the most politically literate electorate in Europe – there are few better places in which to be a flâneur.

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On the morning of 18 September 2014, I had breakfast in a café on Edinburgh’s George Street and the waiter who served me there, a bearded Hungarian hipster, said that when he finished his shift he would be voting in the referendum for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom. How long had he been living in Scotland? “Only a few months,” he said. “But countries should be free.” 

Jason Cowley’s “Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of An Age of Upheaval” (Salt Publishing) is out on 14 September

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?