Robert Harris: ‘Johnson must fancy himself as Caesar’
Midway through our lunch, Robert Harris lets slip that I am stepping in some pretty big footsteps. “I sat in this very pub with Boris Johnson 20 years ago,” the thriller writer says. Johnson had come to interview Harris about his Cicero trilogy of novels set in classical Rome, a subject of shared interest. “I occasionally got a word in,” he recalls with a chuckle.
“Here” is the dining room of the Dundas Arms, a picture-postcard expression of an English country inn, all neat gardens and mature trees, perched between a canal and the River Kennet. It is Harris’s local, a short walk from his home in an old vicarage in Kintbury, West Berkshire, and a minute or so from the station where he had met me off the London train. It is the day after the general election, with the crumpled journalist who once trekked out to meet Harris triumphantly returned as prime minister.
We take our table by the window overlooking the river, where Harris, dressed in a vaguely raffish Nehru-meets-Tyrol collarless jacket, is quick to spot a kingfisher. It is swiftly clear that we will be digesting recent political events as much as the gastropub fusion offerings — from “nibbles” to “a bit on the side”, smoked tofu to game pie — on the Dundas’s menu. Kintbury sits in Conservative southern heartland territory. Highclere Castle, “Downton Abbey” in real life, is close by; David Cameron grew up nearby — though it voted, narrowly, to remain in the EU.
No surprises here then. But elsewhere there have been developments that give Harris a former political commentator, cause to reflect. He was with Tony Blair in his constituency home in Sedgefield, north-east England, when the New Labour leader learnt that he’d won the battle to be prime minister. Harris was covering the finale of the 1997 general election campaign that led to 18 years of Conservative rule being buried in a New Labour landslide, the first of three successive wins for Blair. As we halfheartedly peruse the menus, he notes how Sedgefield was one of the 2019 election’s many scalps of Labour’s seemingly once impregnable “red wall” of northern industrial seats that switched to blue.
If he were back in his old job writing a political column, what would he make of it? Perhaps surprisingly, Harris, who was close to a number of the luminaries of New Labour and identifies as “left liberal”, seems relatively sanguine. “Every triumph has to be paid for,” he says, with a nod to his research on classical Rome. Johnson will now have to deliver. “Politics is just relentless . . . nothing ever ends. You get Brexit and then there’ll be an NHS winter crisis.”
For all the fraught talk of the divisions exposed by Brexit, the election proved pretty traditional fare — in England at least — in the form of a two-party contest. “The mould has not been broken, despite everyone saying how Brexit’s an issue that trumps all normal party allegiances, it’s going to redraw the map and so on. It did no such thing.”
Labour could be “in quite a strong place in 2024 because the Tories won’t have their two great advantages — ‘get Brexit done’ and Jeremy Corbyn”. The difficulty will be getting the right new leader and reorientating the party, not easy with the hard left that now controls Labour and seems not actually that interested in winning elections.
Does Harris, the son of a Nottingham printer who grew up in a council home and was educated at comprehensive school, relate to the non-metropolitan, non-southern parts of England that turned on Labour? While it’s in his DNA and he has a sense of that world, having also covered the miners’ strike in the 1980s as a reporter, “It’s pretty distant,” he says. He left home at 18 to go to Cambridge and later joined the BBC and has ever since been “a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan media elite”.
Harris has done what all too many journalists talk about but few achieve: write books and sell lots of them. To date, 13 novels — from Fatherland, depicting a world in which Hitler won the war, to the flash crash in financial markets depicted in The Fear Index — and five non-fiction books have emerged from the Harris keyboard, selling a total of 25m copies.
The move to fiction does not mean Harris has turned his back on the world of politics that he covered. Throughout the drama of Britain’s departure from the EU, Harris has been a frequent, often arch, commentator on Twitter. The election has now drawn a line under that. “In a way, what Remain people like me really wanted was a confirmatory vote. We just wanted for people to say, ‘Yes, we’ve looked at this, and this is what we want’,” he says. Brexit “might finally bring that postwar reckoning that we’ve never had about our status in the world”. He is very proud of Britain and doesn’t want to run it down, “but we’ve traded a lot on past glories, some of which have fed into Brexit”.
Before we dive further into Brexit and its consequences, we finally, at the third time of asking, manage to focus on the menu. Harris opts for game terrine and chicken pie, while I go for Devon crab pappardelle and oven-roasted cod. Any wariness about lunchtime drinking is quickly banished. It’s Friday, it’s winter and the day after a long night of politics that has robbed both of us of our usual budget of sleep. Harris opts for a glass (large) of Pinot Grigio while I go for the solid comfort of a Guinness.
The Dundas Arms
53 Station Road, Kintbury, England
Crab pasta £9
Pie of the day £15.50
Cod loin £17
St Emilion Château La Courolle £12.50
Pinot Grigio Montevento x2 £17.40
Double espresso £3
Total (inc tip) £98.78
Harris’s Cicero novels, set in the final dramatic years of the Roman republic, offer a compelling and all too pertinent masterclass in the business of politics and power at a time of disruption. So what would the great Roman statesman make of it all? Harris initially demurs, noting that any prescience was wholly unconscious, before confessing to being surprised at how a dramatisation of the novels by the RSC highlighted striking relevances to today — stories of “demagogues who are themselves very wealthy, powerful aristocrats, directing the anger of the population against the elite, against the Senate and Cicero, for their own political advantage”.
So, Johnson as Publius Clodius, the well-born, rhetorically adept, disruptive lawmaker who transforms himself into plebeian tribune? “I think he must fancy himself as Caesar,” counters Harris, who adds that the prime minister “very much sees the classical analogies and is inspired by the idea of rhetoric and swaying the crowd.”
As we address our starters — Harris’s terrine with clementine and port marmalade is “delicious”; my pasta is nicely spiced — he develops his classical interpretation of the prime minister. Johnson, he suggests, has a “great man” view of power. “He’s, let’s say, flexible in his approach. I don’t think he is guided.” So expect some surprising twists and turns, the ditching of past policies and allies. If Johnson wants to hold on to his newly won northern territories, then he can’t have a hard, recession-inducing Brexit. “One of the things that I did learn from writing the Cicero books is the obvious one: that in every great victory lie the seeds of subsequent defeat.”
The subject of decline is at the heart of Harris’s latest novel, The Second Sleep, which imagines a bigger nightmare than anything the most despondent Remainer could conjure up. The novel is set in the year 1468 — only, as quickly becomes apparent, it isn’t the 15th century we know from history. Rather it is 800 years in the future, centuries after an apocalypse in the mid-2020s has pitched the world into a new dark ages.
Compared with his past books, which have often drawn on real events or situations — from the destruction of Pompeii to the Dreyfus affair — The Second Sleep breaks new imaginative ground. The title refers to pre-industrial sleeping patterns where it was customary to divide one’s slumbers in two intervals, interspaced with a period of nocturnal activity where people would get up, potter around or socialise. For Harris it was a fitting image for his subject of a world “going back to sleep again”.
In particular, the novel addresses the notion of how vulnerable civilisations are and how quickly sophisticated systems and associated knowledge can be lost. In this novel, the Britons of the future are puzzled by the plastic relics of a past age of “scientism” — some bearing the symbol of original sin: the bitten apple — that no one can comprehend.
The book offers a number of suggestions for how we reach this dystopia — from climate catastrophe to technological failure. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s worth noting that senior officials have raised concerns over the fragility of our networks. For Harris, two events are salutary: the fuel tanker strike of 2000 and the financial crash of 2008. Both showed how close a society dependent on technological networks and very thin supply chains can come grinding to a halt, with goods ceasing to be distributed and payments systems seizing up.
It has happened before. Raising and circling a finger and with a nod to the window he says: “Around here there were lots of big Roman villas. They were palaces really, but nobody knew how to work them once the Romans left.” A theme that “fascinates and haunts” him is that “one day the buildings of the City of London will topple and they won’t take long to decay, the roads will be grass and then trees and forests and then there will just be strange concrete blocks left around”. Which is pretty much the world of The Second Sleep.
Informing all of this is the fact that we have lost our sense of the tactile, our basic understanding of the technology on which we rely so much. Smartphones are central to our lives — yet who really knows how they work or what is even inside them? “It’s losing that tactile sense of being able in the end to make a shelter, cook a meal, not get something from delivery.” He compares it with the world of his parents, where his father was able to take a car engine apart. “In my childhood, I mainly just saw a pair of feet sticking out from under a car.”
So did Harris himself learn how to take a car apart? “Good God, no. I can’t even mend a bicycle puncture,” he retorts. “I’m the original dreamy boy in his bedroom from the age of eight writing stories.” (A children’s history book, full of illustrations, was a rich source of inspiration.) Even here the classical world provides insight, as Harris notes that Pliny the Elder was voicing his concerns about the destruction of nature, the excesses of luxury and so on.
The arrival of our main courses returns us to more earthy matters. We decide it is also time for a change of drinks, with Harris opting for red wine to go with his pie — “delicious post-election comfort food” — while I settle for a glass of white to go with the fish, which has a nice crispy crust sitting on a hearty chorizo and white-bean cassoulet.
By now other diners have joined us in the restaurant. Behind us, a group of men digest a festive menu and the political developments, passing swift judgment on Corbyn and what they reckon Johnson should now do (“get Scotland sorted — tell them to f*** off”).
Politics seems to be a fixture of the Dundas. Harris used to dine here with Roy Jenkins, who lived nearby until his death in 2003. The Labour grandee, European Commission president and later founder of the breakaway Social Democratic party, felt betrayed by Blair over plans for a restructuring of the centre-left within a reformed voting system. Harris’s own relations with Blair frayed over the Iraq war and were ruptured when he wrote The Ghost, a biting portrayal of an out-of- touch leader.
Harris says he is happy to be out of the metropolitan whirl. He and his wife Gill Hornby, also a writer, swapped a place in west London for the calm of Kintbury back in the 1990s, when the children were small and the sales of Fatherland had transformed the family fortunes. “It’s been a great thing for me, not living in London, not going to launch parties, not being in all of that circuit. Just working quietly. Nobody reads reviews out here, nobody cares. That’s great.” His wife calls him a “sociable hermit”.
His routine is ordered. Ideally he starts work on a new book in January, writing from 8am to 1pm, and finishes in June or July when he goes on holiday, already with an idea possibly for the next book. It’s a rhythm that means that he works “organically with the season”, the mornings getting lighter, the days longer as he progresses. While he once thought a book must take years to write, he now believes that this is “nonsense”. He sees himself in a 19th-century tradition of writing. “It’s a profession, a job,” he says. “There’s a terrible preciousness about writing. I think that if you write, you’ve just got to get on and write.” Such views might offend the literary set. But he is not bothered by that world. He sees himself in the tradition of “novelist as reporter”, the writer whose eye is caught by an idea and then turns it into a story.
If The Second Sleep looks to a bleak dystopian future, for his next book he plans to return to the more familiar terrain of the terrifying past, with a tale based around a V2 rocket engineer working on a base in the Netherlands. “I just find it extraordinary to think that one European country is occupying another, firing ballistic missiles at the capital city of another — within living memory.”
One topic he is not looking to pick up is Brexit. The only novel he would want to read on that would come from the keyboard of a Leaver, ideally someone writing from the north, “writing against the prevailing liberal cultural authors”.
Besides, it is worth asking whether one can have too much politics. “Look at the republic in Rome: Cicero, Cato, Caesar, Pompey — huge figures and what was the result?” he asks. “That was a system obsessed with politics and with geniuses in the senate and the result was a catastrophe.” Rome endured, but “the republic itself had gone. It became a kind of gangster empire.”
As we drink our coffees — pudding would have been a hearty step too far — we return to the present and closer to home. His four children are now grown up; I say we are entering a similar phase as our youngest has just headed off to university. “It’s quite a shock when they move out,” he counsels, adding that it is something not written about enough. “It’s quite depressing because it’s a chapter close. You know that, let’s face it, the biggest chapter of your life has just come to an end . . . if it’s a novel, you’re now getting fewer pages.”
I can’t help wondering whether on a grey December day, I am witnessing the germination of a future book.
The writer is the FT’s literary editor