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.


Lionel Shriver in Auckland

The Trouble with Fiction

Interviewing Lionel Shriver at the Auckland Writers' festival I said: 'Your latest novel is about dying in the American healthcare system. Did you feel any tension between fiction and polemic?' The question had an immediate effect. The highly-strung, exacting Lionel drew herself up. Her tone was harsh. I was doing the novel a disservice, she said. It was a book about life, family, love, it was not grim, it was not polemic. It was definitely not all about dying. There was a short silence. But I have, since early childhood, been impervious to writerly fury. 'So, your novel's all about dying,' I said. 'And it reminded me of another story about death: Tolstoy's, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.' There was another pause. Tolstoy? Now we were talking. Lionel settled back down in her chair. 'Tolstoy,' she murmured. 'That... seems fair.'


Martin Amis the Gynocrat

All is Connected

At a literary festival in Paris, Martin Amis announced, 'There's nothing to heat the blood in British politics today.' What parliament needs, he added, is more women. Always a literary genius, often politically unpredictable, Amis has lately become, in his own words, a "gynocrat." To him perhaps this means: Men are bad. Women are good, with their gentle ways. It's not a word he'd get away with around me. 'Gyno-what? Get back to your luminous prose.' (Was Mrs Thatcher the elephant in the Gynocrat's theoretical room? Perhaps he remembers her as soft and kind.) Meanwhile, I didn't agree. In politics, there can never be nothing to heat the blood. Because all is connected.


John Buchan and Osama bin Laden

World News August 2010
Recently I returned to a childhood favourite: the novels of John Buchan. These were first published between 1915 and 1924. I found an ancient volume containing all four books, in which Buchan's British hero, Richard Hannay, does battle with the evil Boche, before and during World War One.
In Greenmantle, the second adventure after The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay uncovers a dastardly plot. The Germans, led by a vast, bull-necked monster called General Stumm, have come up with a novel way to win the war. The plot involves a propaganda ploy: they will produce a Prophet, Greenmantle, who will ignite the flames of jihad in the Muslim world. Greenmantle will be an instrument of German power. Once the Muslim masses are inflamed, and ready to follow Greenmantle's bidding, they will become a force that can be wielded by the Prophet's German masters, in their pursuit of victory and world domination.


Albert Speer Crossing the World

Falling for the Wrong Man

On 17th June 1955, Reichsminister Albert Speer wrote in his diary, "Bad humour for days." He had done his laundry a day earlier than usual, "without asking our Admiralty." A week later Grand Admiral Donitz and Admiral Raeder were still discussing his breach of protocol. "Another of his explosive decisions! An idea leaps into his head and he's got to carry it off right off." Impulsive Speer ignored the Admirals and went out. He had places to be. He wrote, "My Coburg friend has obtained for me the figures for the distances I still have to cover: Vienna to Budapest to Belgrade, 615 kilometres, Belgrade to Sofia to Istanbul, 988 kilometres. I have decided to be in Istanbul on January 1st." He would be "in Istanbul" and he would be in Berlin's Spandau Prison, where he, Raeder, Donitz and others, convicted at Nuremberg as high-ranking Nazis, were serving long sentences, in Speer's case twenty years.


Gaza 2009

Holiday Reading 2009

On holiday in the Far North, we all had our books. One son was reading I, Claudius. The Emperor Caligula, as Graves tells it, wore dresses and high heels, enjoyed orgies, and challenged Neptune to fight him in battle. His soldiers marched in and attacked the waves. Neptune did not retaliate, and few casual­ties were sustained: one soldier was nipped by a crab; another was stung by a jellyfish. This was a lighter moment, my son reported. Most of the book was a Roman blood­-bath.


Barack Obama in London

Confronting the Beast

Recently, outside London's 10 Downing Street, I was handed a pamphlet displaying a mugshot of Barack Obama. The President's face was surrounded by photos of other desperados: Blair, Bush, Brown, Sarkozy, Cameron, Merkel. They were all, the pamphlet told me, Wanted By the Shariah Court for Crimes Against Muslims. On the back was a list of those crimes: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and "the propping up of Apostate Regimes," by which, the authors explained, they meant the United States practice of supporting dictatorships in Muslim countries.


On Discipline

Recently I was asked to "name something you've never got around to doing." Owning a dog, I said. The idea was planted. I started looking up breeds, frowning over their characteristics. I fancied a beagle, one of those conscientious little super-grasses at the airport, the drug and fruit police. (The dogs I used to joke to the children I was going to kick as they snuffled self-righteously past.) But beagles, I discovered, can be "ungovernable." I was told of one atrocious local beagle that had driven its owner to nervous breakdown. A cocker spaniel? These innocent-looking creatures, I was amused to learn, are prone to "rage syndrome." As for cross-breeds, controversy swirls around them, a hotbed of snobbery and slander: for every website extolling the virtues of "labradoodles," there's another scorning them as "mutts."