Editor’s Note: The masochism premiership, our national novelist and Tintin in Bishop’s Stortford

May’s Sisyphean fate is to have pursued a project in which she never truly believed, testing it to the edge of destruction. 

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When I interviewed Theresa May at Downing Street one morning in February 2017, she was personally cold but confident enough. She had recently given her Lancaster House speech in which she laid down her so-called red lines on Brexit and had just returned from visiting Donald Trump in the White House for the first time. Cheered on by the Daily Mail and the Sun, the Tories were 20 points ahead in some polls and May spoke to me of her determination to deliver a Brexit settlement that honoured the “quiet resolve” of those who had voted to leave the EU. Guided by Nick Timothy, her chief ideologue (who has since turned against her), May was positioning herself to be a “new-model” conservative whose instincts were communitarian and post-liberal: what interested her was the common good, she told me. During our conversation, I was never fully convinced that May meant what she said – she misquoted Burke, for instance – and I had the sense she was ventriloquising Timothy.

The Prime Minister’s luck held until 18 April 2017, when she called the snap general election in which, after a disastrous and charmless campaign, she deservedly lost the Conservatives their hard-won majority and, as a consequence, became nightmarishly beholden to the hard-line reactionary Protestants of the DUP.

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In July 2017, I wrote that May’s premiership had become an epic story of hubris and humiliation: it was the “masochism premiership”. But it’s got much worse since then – she has lost authority and respect and, most catastrophically, at key set-piece moments, even her voice, just when she needed to be at her most eloquent, in front of the members delivering a party conference speech or in the House of Commons defending her loathed deal.

Should we pity Theresa May or condemn her for her intransigence, her blunders and inability to reach out across differences in this time of painful division?

Her endurance is a form of masochism: like an obdurate opening batsman (please forgive the cricket metaphor, for she likes and understands our summer game), she occupies the crease, virtually strokeless, taking the blows, absorbing punishment. Her Sisyphean fate is to have pursued a project – Brexit – in which she never truly believed, testing it to the edge of destruction. The masochism premiership cannot go on. It goes on. Surely it can’t go on? It won't go on. 

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I don’t read as much contemporary fiction as I used to and nowadays there aren’t many writers whose new novels I would seek out on immediate publication, as I did with every new Philip Roth when he was alive. Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Michel Houellebecq, possibly JM Coetzee – it’s a short list. McEwan continues to interest me because of his long-standing ambition to document in fiction the defining particulars of our age. In 2005, after the London bombings of 7 July, I wrote that he had become our “national novelist” because of his sustained imaginative engagement with the present moment. The phrase resonated and, for a period, that was how he was invariably described in profiles in the New Yorker, the Sunday Times, the Financial Times and elsewhere.

His new novel, Machines Like Me, which has just landed on my desk, is typically about an urgent modern subject: artificial intelligence and robotics and how they affect what it means to be human. But the twist is that it’s set in an alternative 1980s, in which Margaret Thatcher has lost the Falklands War and Tony Benn is close to winning power, which somehow seems much less improbable now that the Bennites are in control of the Labour Party and massing at the gates of Downing Street.

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It was with great sadness that I learned of the death, at the age of 56, of Michael Axworthy. I did not know him well – we met a few years ago at a dinner organised by Brendan Simms at Peterhouse, Cambridge – but I admired his scholarly expertise as a historian of Iran and former diplomat, and it was a pleasure to publish his essays. He was erudite, diligent and always courteous in the way he responded to editorial suggestions. He sent me a piece about the dominance of the Treasury over public life only very recently. “I have to tell you that I am now quite weak and thin and finishing this off was a bit of a struggle,” he wrote with characteristic understatement and humility. “I may not be able to participate very much in the editing process, but I hope I have given you enough to go on to produce something worthwhile.” He died a few days later. I shall publish the piece in due course.

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I’ve had some interesting replies to an item, in my last Editor’s Note, I wrote about the crass redevelopment of Bishop’s Stortford train station in Hertfordshire, and indeed of the grimness of so much of the built environment in this age of austerity. Michael Prodger, our art critic, pointed out that the station, “in its infinitely more attractive 1938 guise”, appears in the Tintin adventure The Black Island. I loved the Tintin books as a child and it was always a thrill when my parents took me to a bookshop in Epping, Essex to buy a new one.

But I had no idea that Bishop’s Stortford station features in The Black Island. And yet sure enough, when I checked, there it was. And in the background of Hergé’s drawing of the station one can also see the spire of the fine local church of St Michael’s, where Francis William Rhodes, father of Cecil Rhodes, was the vicar. Michael told me that Hergé sent an assistant, Bob de Moor, to Britain to make detailed sketches of the station and church and then worked them up for the eventual book back in Brussels. “It seems to me to be a decent civic claim to fame,” he said.

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 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty