Neal Ascherson: ‘It doesn’t matter that there was a reason for ending their lives – I did it
The Guardian, by Andrew Anthony
Neal Ascherson is a former foreign correspondent for the Observer, an expert on Poland, the author of a range of nonfiction works, and visiting professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has just written his first novel, The Death of the Fronsac, a tale of intrigue and identity set mostly during the second world war.
You’re [an incredibly youthful] 84, which is not the usual age for debut novels. What made you branch into fiction?
I think it was the feeling that I was getting near the end of my life and I wanted to unload all this stuff, these impressions that have been churning around for so long. When I left university I thought, I will now proceed to become the greatest novelist of my generation in Europe. I went to the Manchester Guardian and started as a reporter. The then editor, AP Wadsworth – he looked like Donald Duck – came and looked at me for a bit and said: “I think you’ll find journalism and novel writing don’t really go together.” And he proved entirely right.
You stayed in journalism – did you recognise that it was the life for you?
I just got into it and I became fond of the comrades on the old Manchester Guardian. The work I was doing initially was unbelievably boring. Mostly doing the police calls late at night, trying to find out about local accidents or problems. The work wasn’t interesting but I liked the feeling of it; I liked the buzz. I didn’t like beer at that time, which was a disadvantage because everyone else around me liked beer a great deal. Apart from that, I liked going to the pubs where the detectives went and you bought old bill a drink and he told you something surprising. I liked all that.
Eric Hobsbawm, your tutor at Cambridge, said you were the most brilliant student he ever had. Hanging out in boozers talking to cops isn’t what you expect from that kind of billing…
My life was derailed by doing national service. After school, I was sent to Malaya in the Royal Marines Commando, which I did for a couple of years. Britain in the 1950s was grey and conventional but Malaya, as well as being dangerous and gory, was so beautiful and brilliant and unexpected. I left university with a very good degree and people said I should become an academic, but I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see that big world. And one of the attractions of journalism was that eventually I’d get there, because I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent.
You grew up in Edinburgh but went to Eton. How did you fit in?
I got a scholarship. In those days it was still the old 70 poor scholars deal, established by Henry VI, so my parents paid about £50 a year. The scholars were segregated in the original college building. We felt we were more intelligent than the thousand lumpen upper-class boys out there, so there was a certain tension. But I certainly learned a lot – a great deal about English entitlement. I’ve always been a wee bit puzzled by the attitude of Eton boys to their teachers, the “beaks” as they were called. They weren’t afraid of them. And it dawned on me only a few months ago: of course, they’re servants! That’s how they regard them.
Earlier this year, you made a confession of killing two mortally wounded insurgents during the Malayan emergency. Was it something you’d been thinking about for a while?
Well, for many years I didn’t think about it at all. I don’t think it was suppression, it was just that when it happened I was very young and quite ferocious, as young men are. And I thought, well, what else was I supposed to do? End of story. So I didn’t bother about it. It’s only when you get old that you get soft. And you begin to think, those two young men, they had lives to live. Doesn’t matter what they’d been doing, doesn’t matter that there was a reason or a justification for ending their lives, I did it. And I’m sorry for it. And as your own life expectancy diminishes, you get a greater respect for the thing.
On the whole, men stop reading fiction as they get older. Have you always been a fiction reader?
Well, sort of, yes, except my fiction reading has been very erratic and incomplete, partly because when I was at Eton, English was not a subject. They didn’t teach it. So I left school never having heard of George Eliot. I knew there had been someone called Dickens, because I’d seen the Oliver Twist movie. So my reading was completely self-educated and haphazard. Then when I was a journalist, I was doing book reviewing, which I’m still doing, and unless you’re a specialist fiction reviewer, what you get sent is fact books. So I tried to catch up, not very systematically, but I still enjoy it intensely, reading fiction. At the moment. I’m reading, at last, Val McDermid, what they call tartan noir. I think she’s wonderful. Such a storyteller.
You were in favour of Scottish independence and in favour of remaining in Europe. Which referendum result was the most disappointing?
Oh, well, independence. No doubt I was more emotionally engaged in it, but I was sorry because of what I’d seen, the way in which thousands of people came awake in the campaign for the first time and people who’d never voted or paid any attention to politics came out. We were asking what sort of Scotland do you want. People were so unused to being asked. To see people suddenly be full of hope and excited and wanting to participate in their future – it was probably the most moving thing I’ve ever seen.
You’ve always been a very big European. The vote to leave Europe must have hurt…
Yes, but I don’t accept it. It’s so stupid. It’s such an awful mistake by England; it’s specifically an English choice. As you know, Scotland voted the other way. A lot of decent, hopeful people who love their country thought the thing to do was to take back control of our country. For me, it’s nonsensical and illusory.
Do you believe it’s not a done deal?
I don’t believe it is entirely a done deal. When it happened, in fact before the vote, when you could see things moving the wrong way from our point of view, I said the UK will spend the next three years trying to get out of the EU and the next three years after that trying to get back in. I’m not sure that that’s not a rough diagram of what might happen.