Choosing Heroes

In July I packed my bag. My novel, Soon, was to be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, and in Canada in October by House of Anansi. Leaving for the airport, I said, "Right, I've seen the future. The royal baby will be a boy. Its name will be George." And then I was on the move, leaving the beloved shantytown behind. Singapore was blanketed with smoke from forest fires in Indonesia, the city eerily absent as the plane came down. Changi Airport stank of smoke, the buildings outside dimly visible through the haze. There were regular updates on air quality, and all the workers wore masks. Twelve hours later, looking down on the great map of London turning beneath the wing, I felt a familiar kind of vehement joy: I was free, let loose again, wheeling through the world. The following morning I was up at Kenwood, on Hampstead Heath. There were stands of flowering rhododendrons flanking a path that could have been the model for Karl Maughan's hyper-real paintings. We were talking to a Guardian journalist about the whistleblower, Edward Snowden. Later, in the car, a flash came through on the journalist's phone, "Snowden en route to Russia." I got out of the car in my running gear and ran across town to Queen's Park. London is so lovely in the summer: the dim light under the trees, the uncut grass in the parks. Part of the city's beauty is its theatricality, its drama. Everywhere you go the writer's radar, the sense of prescience, is fully exercised. The history is rich, and the future is going to be riveting.

Edward Snowden's face had been everywhere, on screens, in newspapers. At lunch with my agent and editor at Jonathan Cape I told them about Kim Dotcom, about the spying legislation in New Zealand that threatens our right to privacy. The next day at a lunch I talked to a Guardian journalist about the D notice served by the government on all newspapers in relation to Snowden. The Guardian was the only paper defying the heavy pressure, and going on publishing the story. They were communicating with Snowden from a special secure room, using encryption. There was a sense of tension, of risk; they hadn't been getting much sleep. There was the understanding that Snowden was in great danger, that even if he escaped a living death in an American Supermax prison, he would end up being "fatally mugged" or would "fall under a bus." I thought about the crazy, quixotic courage of it, taking on the security forces of the Free World. And the bitter irony that the young man who had exposed state spying had himself been charged with espionage.

I went to the BBC for a TV interview about Soon. Afterwards, I got a tour of the newsroom, where three thousand people work. They were covering Egypt; the newsreader was interviewing an Arabist, and on screens the people were rioting. Later that night at the Faber party, held in the Duke of Bedford's garden, there was Kazuo Ishiguro, there was Nadeem Aslam, there was Craig Raine making his jaunty way under the trees. "Soon is reviewed in The Literary Review," Craig Raine said unnervingly. "The critic seems largely to be on your side."

I talked to a woman who told me she's part of a team organising an alternative to the Booker prize, which, she said, had been the subject of complaints about celebrity judges and dumbing down. (One previous judge, Stella Rimmington, having announced she'd be looking for books that weren't too demanding, earned the scathing headline "Booker judges seem to be finding reading a bit hard.") The new prize is intended be fiercely literary, TV celebrity-free, elitist and non-commercial. On the other hand, I pointed out, there have been some great recent Booker winners, like John Banville, Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes.

We talked about The Yellow Birds, the celebrated novel by Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers. I'd finished the book on the plane, shed some tears and had also resisted it. I felt salty about the brand of solipsistic American schmaltz that says, "I am fucked up and suffering because I had to kill so many people." Here's a choice: the heroism of Kevin Powers or the heroism of Edward Snowden? One guy will be rewarded, the other risks being imprisoned or killed. I know which I prefer. I go for Snowden: the outsider, who stands up for greater principles. Not the joiner, who goes along with the whole charade, and then feels sick inside.
Published in Metro Magazine September 2013