«JOURNAL OF ENGLISH STUDIES - VOLUME 9 (2011), 277-286 COMING TO TERMS WITH 21ST CENTURY BRITISH POLITICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOBY LITT BETSABÉ ...»
COMING TO TERMS WITH 21ST CENTURY BRITISH POLITICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOBY LITT
JOURNAL OF ENGLISH STUDIES - VOLUME 9 (2011), 277-286
COMING TO TERMS WITH 21ST CENTURY BRITISH POLITICS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH TOBY LITT
BETSABÉ NAVARRO ROMERO*
Santiago de Compostela University ABSTRACT. English novelist and short story writer, Toby Litt is the author of the novels Beatniks: An English Road Movie (1997), Corpsing (2000), Deadkidsongs (2001), Finding Myself (2003), Ghost Story (2004), Hospital (2007), I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008), Journey into Space (2009), and King Death (2010). He is also known for his collections of short stories Adventures in Capitalism (1996) and Exhibitionism (2002). Toby Litt was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 “Best of Young British Novelists” in 2003. He is an authorised voice among young writers deconstructing contemporary consumer society. In this interview, held at the University of Almería during the 34th AEDEAN Conference (11-13 November 2010), he provides an assessment of modern politics, shares his ideas concerning the recent political affairs in the UK, such as the ideological modernisation during the previous New Labour years or the latest social changes in Britain, and he ﬁnally examines the position of writers and intellectuals as regards to power and their political commitment.
Key words: Toby Litt, contemporary society, intellectuals, Blairism, British politics.
APROXIMACIÓN A LA POLÍTICA BRITÁNICA DEL SIGLO
XXI: ENTREVISTA CON TOBY LITTRESUMEN. El novelista y escritor de relatos, Toby Litt, es autor de las novelas Beatniks: An English Road Movie (1997), Corpsing (2000), Deadkidsongs (2001), Finding Myself (2003), Ghost Story (2004), Hospital (2007), I Play de Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008), Journey into Space (2009) y King Dead (2010).
También se le conoce por sus colecciones de relatos Adventures in Capitalism 277 Journal of English Studies, vol. 9 (2011) 277-286
BETSABÉ NAVARRO ROMERO(1996) y Exhibitionism (2002). Toby Litt fue nombrado por la Revista Granta como uno de los 20 “Mejores Jó
I sit with novelist and short story writer Toby Litt during the course of the 34th AEDEAN Conference in Almería in November 2010. I take the opportunity to converse with him about social and political mores in the UK, about the social changes that have contributed to an evolved national structure after the New Labour era, together with the political position of the intelligentsia in the UK and the rationale for their writing.
After the recent elections (May 2010) and with the Tories back in power, it is unavoidable an assessment of the “New Labour” years. How do you think this period will be remembered? How has the country changed?
The main thing for me is that Blairism was not an ideological riposte to Thatcherism. In its essence, it was a continuation. For example, we can talk about cities and countryside, but let’s talk about cities ﬁrst. The way they have continued to change, to become homogenized, to become Americanised in their structures, and their centres; they are ﬁrst decimated by being emptied out, then revived by museums, galleries, and chain restaurants, Starbucks… things like that. The remaking of the countryside, a sort of bland corporate place which began in 1979, or at least in my memory, has brought pluses and minuses. You can probably go to civic spaces that are not the sort of concrete bunkers of the 1970s. In the country, I think the rural areas were seen by Labour as being not-where-the-voters-were;
there was certainly a neglect of the people living there; for example, there was a continuing erosion of communities and what held them together, closing postofﬁces and village pubs. So in a way, it was far less signiﬁcant than what there was set in train by Margaret Thatcher, where the ideological argument about how 278 Journal of English Studies, vol. 9 (2011) 277-286
COMING TO TERMS WITH 21ST CENTURY BRITISH POLITICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOBY LITTthe British economy should function was basically won. There was an attempt by New Labour to mitigate the worst effects of Thatcherism, but there wasn’t really any attempt to provide an alternative, and what we have now is a return to a sort of accelerated version of those things. The way I see it now is that Blair managed to sell back to the British people what they already bought once, and do it under a different heading. But New Labour did certainly have a stronger social justice agenda which did make a difference to lots of people, as a genuine attempt to bring people on the lowest levels to a better level of living. There was also a turning away from some of the vindictive kind of legislation that you got under the Thatcher government which seemed to be motivated by hate of different parts of society, for homosexuals or the unemployed, and a desire to socially punish those people. It used to be very difﬁcult for people who were out of work and had no address to get back into society. I think nowadays it’s not quite the same catch-22 where you can’t get a job, if you have no job, you can’t get an address… It seems nonsensical to put people in a position where they can’t help themselves.
Margaret Thatcher’s government was characterised by a strong ideological content whereas with Blairism, it has been said that it was not really an ideological project, but a compound of different and contradictory policies. However, taking a broad balance of these ten/thirteen years and comparing them with the past conservative era, has it been positive as far as living standards, especially for the poorest, are concerned? Would you agree with that?
Yes, I think that’s true if you compare what another ten years of Conservative government would have done, and what the family housing service would have been, what the state of schools, in terms of infrastructure would have been.
A huge amount of money did go into education, but to me the root of it is very simple. The question was whether there was any possibility of market capitalism being resisted by the state, and in this sense there wasn’t an ideological switch.
There have been numerous iconic failures of partnership between public and private funding such as the Millennium Dome, or such as the Channel tunnel, where essentially it gets messed up and the state has to bring the project through. It turns out to be a completely botched kind of job that continues to be issued to everyone as the model by which “things can only get better”, which is also the way Blair thought that they can get better. The New Labour rebranding project, early on, had to do with wooing the right-wing press, and getting things like Financial Times on their side. They had done that at least one election prior to winning, and in the end they won. It was a way of not scaring the City. I can remember my father talking about how, basically, if a Labour government got in, the next day there would be almost a stock market collapse, there would run on the pound, investor conﬁdence would be depleted around the world, and no one would want to invest 279 Journal of English Studies, vol. 9 (2011) 277-286
BETSABÉ NAVARRO ROMEROin the UK anymore, because they’d seen him as a Communist. It was ludicrous, although New Labour was palliative in terms of social justice, it wasn’t a Socialist party in any way. Could a socialist party have got into power? Probably not. I don’t know. Perhaps I am deluded about the kind of party the British people are likely to vote for. They are probably more likely to vote for a Social Democratic party than a Socialist party. And a lot of them have beneﬁted by being brought into capitalism or brought into the market economy by the sale of council homes or share issues, and quick injections of money into the economy, in some of Nigel Lawson’s budgets, lowering the rates of tax. I think there would not have been a missed opportunity if there had been a greater sense of what could have been done, with more strategic kind of thinking, what kind of country we wanted to be.
I don’t think we do, except if it’s to be a provider of ﬁnancial services with lower standards of regulation, for the world to use as a kind of economic junction box, where we skim up a little bit of money because it passes through, and a tourist site and some kind of begrudged art venue, some kind of out of town barn where you put up some Damien Hirst and some Tracey Emin. You allow some of these scruffy people, who seem to have interested people all over the world, to earn you lots of money by putting them in huge refurbished buildings, or brand new buildings, without actually looking at where those people came from. By being able to go to Art schools, you know, state Education, they allowed them to turn out the way they did and the way things are now. They negate the possibility of people doing that again. I think giving creative people the license to doss around, to do very little for three years, but then the good ones come out with something, that’s much more questioning in some ways. Then if you go through an education system like they have in Japan or they have in America, we don’t seem to be able to acknowledge that everything is bureaucratized, and I work in the university, the language of the administration of the university is completely divorced from any hypocritical thought.
So you think that artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin had an important role in the New Labour modernization project, in order to transform the UK into a kind of marketable nation and be exported.
I think that Damien Hirst is entirely a subset of Andy Warhol. His little circle doesn’t really poke outside. Having an auction of a diamond-incrusted skull and cutting out the dealer – those things are what Warhol didn’t do, but they are entirely within his logic. If Damien Hirst has extended Warhol it’s in a straight line, and I think he ﬁts entirely within the New Labour agenda.
280 Journal of English Studies, vol. 9 (2011) 277-286
COMING TO TERMS WITH 21ST CENTURY BRITISH POLITICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOBY LITTWould you classify these artists within the central term of ‘intellectuals’?
No, artists and musicians are not intellectuals, most of the time. They don’t articulate their thought in that way. They think through their work, and their words about their work are usually appalling – in terms of what they cobble together as artist statements. They come out with things that make you not want to look at the art. I mean, Damien Hirst doesn’t particularly do that. But if you go to an art school and read the artists’ statements… they are usually two very damp paragraphs that don’t really make sense. And the wise artists will probably just quote someone and leave it at that. There isn’t, to my mind, a coherent artistic community that talks within itself. Some of my writing was very much inﬂuenced by some of the artists called YBAs, Jack & Dinos Chapman, for example, their ‘Hell’. I think I have been affected by the kind of extremity that those artists were prepared to use. And I felt fairly isolated in being inﬂuenced by them. I couldn’t really look around and see many other writers who were letting that in. A lot of contemporary British writing is quite hermetically sealed within a scene that doesn’t engage with other art forms, except as subject matter. I think it would be rare to ﬁnd many novelists or poets who would be happy to say ‘Yes, I am an intellectual’. Certainly there are places where they might be encouraged to say it, on a British Council funded trip to Spain, but in a pub in their home town, no.
Intellectuals don’t have very much value… The concept of intellectuals in Britain is a very controversial one. For instance, in Spain or France the concept of intellectual is understood as a conglomeration of writers, journalists or academics… how is this interpreted in the UK? Who are the British intellectuals today?
A lot of very intelligent people work for tabloid newspapers, for example, and their job is to think of what the million people or whatever who buy that paper want to hear and then give it to them, in a language these people want to hear, too. I would say the people who do that, who have a lot of power, are intellectuals but they would hate it if that word came anything near them – they would disown it and they would speak in a different kind of voice and a different kind of language. The idea of speaking something to people they don’t want to hear in a complicated way means that anyone branded an intellectual will end up being ridiculed and destroyed by the tabloid press, assisted by politicians. Take Harold Pinter as an example. He was, by any European standard, an engaged intellectual.
He was politically active. He was involved in English and International PEN. But he was also famously involved in the Palestinian cause, and used his Nobel acceptance speech to make an immensely coherent attack on what he saw as the state of the world because of American foreign policy. But prior to this, he had been so caricatured in the press as a man of intemperate anger, as a bizarrely knee-jerk 281 Journal of English Studies, vol. 9 (2011) 277-286