Naipaul, Orwell and Stamford Bridge

Last weekend I was in the south of France for a friend's 40th birthday party, held at his villa in the hills above the old town of Mougins. It was cold but sunny, with intense blue skies and the most wonderful clear and penetrating light - so thrilling after the grind and gloom of central London in winter. The party had been organised for a long time. It was enjoyable, but the whole thing also had the feel of a pre-credit crunch event: ludicrously cheap flights to Nice on easyJet; conspicuous consumption; easy frivolity and high living . . . and then the long, gruelling, inevitable hangover.

On the flight home I finished Patrick French's authorised biography of V S Naipaul, The World Is What It Is. I was reminded of one evening in the late 1990s when Naipaul invited me for drinks with him and his charming second wife, Nadira, at their London flat. He talked then of how as a young man adrift in London, feeling excluded and restless, he would hurry to buy the New Statesman as soon as it was available each week and of how he had dreamed of writing for the magazine, which he eventually did.

I had recently interviewed Naipaul and, to my surprise, the encounter had gone well. Before the meeting I was warned about his hauteur, intolerance and distaste for journalists. In the event, I found him elegant if austere, partial to flattery and gloriously dismissive of most other writers: "Rushdie? Who is this man you ask me about? Is this the man who tries to write like the blind Irishman? Why do you ask me about this man?"

But he was also self-laceratingly honest and he listened hard. It turned out that he liked what I'd written about him, hence the invitation to his flat, and a second invitation shortly afterwards to lunch with his agent, Gillon Aitken. There's something wonderfully mysterious about Aitken. He is very tall, courteous, patrician, a translator of Pushkin, and, like a spy from another era, has the ability to withhold and reveal in equal measure.

Over lunch he asked if I would be interested - hypothetically, old chap - in writing the authorised biography of Naipaul. It was a fascinating question, to which I had no answer. At the end of the lunch as we ordered coffee - I asked for a macchiato, which prompted Aitken to exclaim, "How recherché!" - my host looked at me challengingly and, his voice quickening for the first time, said: "Could you do it? Could you really do it?"

One Thursday afternoon shortly afterwards, I received a phone call from Naipaul. Would I like to come to stay with him for the weekend in Wiltshire? "Yes, of course," I said. "When?" "Tomorrow," he said. "Can you come tomorrow?" I said that I could not. "All right," he said, "I'll speak to you soon." But I did not hear from him again for five years.

With the exception of Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, French's is the finest book of its kind I have read. He shows us Naipaul as he really is: tortured, brilliant, harsh, contradictory, cruel, unforgiving, fearless, sexually tormented . . . He also writes with authority about the work, perhaps the most complex, provocative and demanding body of work by any postwar British writer. And he gets one important thing about Naipaul that's often ignored - he's funny.

This time last year, I was working on the 100th issue of Granta, an issue guest-edited by the novelist William Boyd, signing off proofs on the magazine's redesign while preparing for the launch of a new website, I had joined Granta only a few months before and was well set there. Now, I'm editor of the New Statesman, and once again working on a proposed redesign of a magazine - this one. I often ask myself, to quote David Byrne, "How did I get here?" The short answer is that I was tempted away from Granta because the NS has been a constant in my life as few other magazines have been. My father used to read it under the great editorships of Kingsley Martin and Anthony Howard, and it was probably the first adult magazine I can remember trying to read as a schoolboy, if one excludes those of the . . . er, more pictorial variety.

The NS was founded in 1913, and I don't think that there is another British magazine with an archive of political and cultural writing as rich, impressive and as varied as ours. Just recently, I was looking through some old issues - we are in the process of digitising our archive, which will soon be available to all users of our website - and paused to read an early offering from George Orwell. "He is very keen," an editor had written in the margin of the text. "Will write more. Money not an issue."

Our new co-proprietor, Mike Danson, is, like Geoffrey Robinson, a football man. He supports Manchester United (he's from the north-west, so that's allowable) but has season tickets at Chelsea. I recently went with him to the Arsenal game at Stamford Bridge: good, comfortable seats in the East Stand. Except that, before the game, I was warned by Mike and his friend Craig, an Arsenal fan like me, that I should not celebrate if Arsenal scored: "It could turn nasty." I remember being told something similar when, in the Seventies, I first saw Arsenal play Spurs at White Hart Lane and stood with the home fans on the Shelf. But haven't we just lived through the embourgeoisement of English football? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Jason Cowley's book "The Last Game: Love, Death and Football" will be published in April 2009

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 first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special