SIR DOUGLAS ROBB LECTURES 2011
The prominent political commentator and activist Tariq Ali will deliver the 2011 Sir Douglas Robb Lectures on “Empire and its futures”.
His lectures, on 17, 21 and 23 March (7pm), will deal in turn with three topics: “Islam and its discontents”, “US power today: The global hegemon”, “The rise of China”.
London-based and published on every continent, Tariq Ali has been a leading figure of the international left since the 1960s. He is an editor of New Left Review and has written more than 20 books on world history and politics as well as seven novels.
Born in Pakistan he attended Oxford University where he became involved in student politics and the movement against the Vietnam war. He is a critic of neoliberal economics and his book The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity was a response to 9/11. His latest book is The Obama Syndrome: War Abroad.
Further details of his lectures will be posted on this website as they come to hand.
A life in writing: Tariq Ali
'It's a problem people have had to come to terms with at different times in history: what do you do in a period of defeat?'
In photographs and news footage of political demonstrations of the 1960s, Tariq Ali is unmistakeable: the thick black hair and thatchy moustache; the clenched fist and characteristic surge to the foreground amid a sea of fair faces. Almost immediately on coming down from Oxford in 1966, Ali began to agitate for a workers' uprising – not just in Britain but across the world. His book 1968 and After: Inside the Revolution (1978) stressed "the key importance of the working class as the only agency of social change". His hero was Che Guevara. Meeting Malcolm X at an Oxford Union debate in 1964, he was pleased to discover that Malcolm was "a great admirer of Cuba and Vietnam". Ali was Britain's own "other", a role he took up with zeal and played with dash and style. He didn't get his revolution, but he did get a Rolling Stones anthem in his honour. Mick Jagger is said to have written "Street Fighting Man" for him. Ali returned the compliment by calling his autobiography Street Fighting Years.
Ali had a strong personal presence then, and he has it still. Now 66, he lives in a roomy neogothic house in Highgate, north London – friends have been heard to call it "Chateau Tariq" – with his partner of 35 years, Susan Watkins. She edits New Left Review, to which Ali has been a longstanding contributor. They have two children (Ali has another, with a former partner). In 1974, he ran for parliament as the International Marxist candidate, but the sloganeering public persona is tempered by an erudite domestic man.
He has not forsaken his opposition to "neoliberal economic policies" (capitalism, in a word) but is resigned to the fact that the predicted disintegration of the system has not occurred. "It's a problem people have had to come to terms with at different times in history: what do you do in a period of defeat?" In his case, the realignment took an unexpected form: he turned to writing fiction. The second act of the drama of Tariq Ali opened after the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989.
"I had already begun to shift my priorities, which were totally political until the early 1980s, by forming Bandung Films. Jeremy Isaacs, who was then head of Channel 4, asked me to make some programmes. Time to move off the streets and be on the other side, in terms of looking at people and not being one of them." But writing fiction, which involves months of solitary endeavour, was a new sort of commitment. Ali's first novel, Redemption, a roman à clef about feuding Trotskyites in London, was published in 1990. The next year he worked on an entirely different sort of story, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, which entered an imaginative realm no less important to him, the historical world of Islam. It depicts the conflict between Christians and Muslims at the end of the 15th century, during the Spanish inquisition, and was to be the first of a five-part series called the Islam Quintet. It is concluded with the publication this month of Night of the Golden Butterfly.
"It was something we just started by accident" – "we" being Verso, the independent radical publishing house of which Ali is editorial director, which has kept all five novels in print. "I wrote Pomegranate Tree and it went down quite well, and then Edward Said said to me: 'You've got to tell the whole bloody story now. You can't just stop midway.'"
The novels of the quintet do not proceed sequentially, or even chronologically. Volume two, The Book of Saladin, steps back three centuries and into the Middle East. Volume three, The Stone Woman, visits 19th-century Istanbul. With the fourth, A Sultan in Palermo, we are in 12th-century Sicily. There are no long-string relationships threaded through the ages, or historical bloodlines. The common dynamic is the repeated collision of east and west, and its fearsome aftershocks. Night of the Golden Butterfly, is set in the present day, with characters flitting from London to Paris, from Germany to China. At the centre of the story is a Pakistani painter, Plato (by naming his hero after a founder of western thought, Ali asserts his belief that the twain shall meet). At the end of the book, the characters congregate in Lahore for a viewing of Plato's last great painting. It is a triptych, at centre of which is Barack Obama, "the first dark-skinned leader of the Great Society", with the stars and stripes "in a state of cancerous decay" tattooed on his back. "The newest imperial chieftain was wearing a button: 'Yes we can . . . still destroy countries'." Elsewhere in Plato's painting, tumours sprout and bearded jihadis are shown "developing a life of their own".
Ali's narrator asks: "Was this the first critical entry by the art world?" Perhaps not, but the author claims it is "the first criticism of Obama in a work of fiction. It just came to me at the time the drone attacks were taking place against Pakistan. I thought: I want to be the first." His gleeful laugh belies a long opposition to American foreign policy, which has not been mitigated by the election of a "dark-skinned" hope-and-change president.
Night of the Golden Butterfly is also a return to the domain of Ali's childhood and youth – "Fatherland", in the novel. The Lahore in which he was born in 1943 was still part of British India (Pakistan gained independence four years later). His parents, who were first cousins, were committed communists, but he describes them as coming from "a deeply reactionary family, heavily involved in running the state at different levels". Ali's maternal grandfather was prime minister of the Punjab. "My parents joined the Communist party in the last years of the British presence, and struggled against that."
Until they were about seven or eight, he and his sister spoke Punjabi. "For a long time there were problems. It was possible to speak it, but it had to be kept at a distance." The language of education and achievement was English. He devoured the English classics – "all of them, probably too young" – then the Russian. "All the socialist realist writers from the Soviet Union were in our house: And Quiet Flows the Don by Sholokov and so on. But I hated all that. My father was quite cross with me, because he was an orthodox communist in many ways. But I found them too formulaic." His literary heroes include Hardy, Balzac – he laughs uproariously at the suggestion that he has just completed an Islamic Comédie Humaine – and, above all, Stendhal, "because the rhythm of his prose is fast and furious, as were his Jacobin politics".
He became politically engaged in his teens, in opposition to Pakistan's first military dictatorship, which was formed in 1958. "An uncle, who was a senior figure in military intelligence, just told my parents: 'Get him out. He can't be protected.'" In his case, out meant Exeter College, Oxford, where he read law between 1963 and 1966. "I was very happy. I made friends rapidly. I was involved in the Labour club, but the Humanists seemed much more daring to me. Because they were saying: there is no God. And I thought, how refreshing: this can all be said in public! That made a big impression on me."
He had assumed that the desire to write fiction was something that developed only in his late 40s, "but I was sorting through my mother's papers in Lahore some time ago, and I found a letter to her from me. It was written on the notepaper of my Oxford college, so it must have dated from 1966 at the latest. And it said: 'I will write fiction. But I don't know when. There's too much else to do at the moment.' I had no memory of that, but the idea must have been in my head."
There was indeed much to do. In January 1967, as an employee of the monthly magazine Town, edited by the Tory MP Julian Critchley (proprietor: Michael Heseltine), he travelled to Prague, to report on theatre and film behind the iron curtain. From there, Town sent him to Vietnam, where he amassed a photographic record of civilian casualties ("I still get the occasional royalty"). Later the same year, he flew to Bolivia to attend the trial of the French revolutionary Régis Debray, who was being pressed (Ali says tortured) to reveal the whereabouts of Che Guevara. Later still, he received news of Che's execution from the Guardian reporter Richard Gott, "whose dispatch was the first confirmation". When he learned of Che's death, he wept. "The sense of loss and grief was overpowering," Ali wrote in Street Fighting Years. He claims not to remember where he was when John F Kennedy was assassinated, "but I can recall every small detail of the day that Che died".
Ali remains essentially a citizen of the world. A recent trip to Yemen from where he wrote an article down-playing the dangers posed by al-Qaida in the region (currently a high CIA priority), was followed by a visit to Granada to receive the 2010 Granadillo prize for the Islam Quintet. He relates how, at a reading from one of his novels in Berlin, an old comrade "rose to his feet and said to the young audience: have you any idea who this man is?" The covers of his books display recommendations from Il Manifesto and Le Monde Diplomatique. Notably absent in his fiction is a story set in modern Britain (apart from the sulking socialists of Redemption). "I suppose I do find English fiction provincial. I prefer American, always have." He proclaims himself "happy" not to be considered part of the English literary scene. "It's a very self-referential and incestuous world. And I don't like the fact that many of them don't like being criticised. I'm always being criticised, and I don't mind it. Unless you're totally vain, criticism can be useful."
In addition to his new novel, Ali has recently published a collection of essays, Protocols of the Elders of Sodom. It contains tributes to Anthony Powell and Proust, and takes swipes at old comrades, such as Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie. He detects a "marked decline" in Rushdie's fiction – "it is sad to write this" – but the event that really riles him was "accepting a knighthood from Blair. The less said the better". Hitchens, who once praised Ali for having "spent much of his life denouncing America as the arsenal of counter-revolution", is grouped among "slightly frivolous figures" and is said now to sound "more like a saloon-bar bore than the fine, critical mind that blew away the haloes surrounding Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton". Invited to respond to the criticism, Hitchens answered: "I can't be bothered."
The predominant theme of Ali's fiction is exile. People are cut off at various points from what is most important to them – their faith, their lovers, their books, their fatherland. The Oxford to which he came in 1963 was not so different from "Fatherland" he says. "I've always felt, since I arrived in Britain, that it was quite familiar. We'd been brought up in a post-colonial world, still very much part of what it had been like before it became independent." But he acknowledges that he has spent the past 20 years writing about the disjuncture. "It's true. One was cut off at different levels. On the level of friendships, for example, because all your friends were left behind. And this novel talks about that. And a disjuncture from lovers. And politics. And food – when I came to Oxford, I could not believe how bad the food was. That was not familiar. In our part of the world, even the poorest family would eat something decent."
Among the most impressive features of the Islam Quintet is the attention to detail: custom, law, dress, archaic place-names, all in addition to a command of the historical events around which each novel in turn is structured. "For the first year or so, I just read anything I can get my hands on. And I go and visit these places I'm writing about – Sicily and Granada and Istanbul – just to smell them." Once started, however, he strides ahead rapidly, without revision – even without rereading what he has written.
"I am a bad person like that. I just write in one big outpouring. And I can't reread it until some time has elapsed. I am a great believer in editors. They send back 10 pages of notes. Then I re-read it, and do what they ask."
Protocols of the Elders of Sodom also contains the statement (originally made in the New Left Review in 1993) that "there cannot be any Chinese wall between literature and politics". Literary comrades of the 60s included the politically engaged poets Christopher Logue and the late Adrian Mitchell. Logue's poster poem, "Know Thy Enemy", showed a huge fist bearing a ring with Che Guevara's picture on it, about to smash the faces of bosses and property owners. The poster was produced by the Black Dwarf, the "radical political-cultural-feminist mag" of which Ali was editor.
When asked if the experience of being a storyteller has softened the rigidity of his stance on the relationship between art and politics, he begins to talk again about his move "sideways" into films and Channel 4. Is he ever troubled by self-doubt? "Yes I am. To be fair to myself . . . we had doubts even at the time. I never had any illusions about Stalinism or that style of society. What we hoped was that it would be replaced by something much better, instead of being a total regression. But that didn't happen."
His early non-fiction is stamped with the mark of total self-belief, and faith in the ideology for which he was fighting, which can lead to moments of unintended humour now. In Street Fighting Years, Ali describes how he asked Jagger to write out the words of "Street Fighting Man", to be printed in facsimile in the Black Dwarf. "He agreed immediately. We photographed the sheet of paper and I threw the original into the wastepaper basket. No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always a substitute for collective action."
Ali's intention on Thursday was not to vote – "for the first time". "I can't vote for New Labour, and of course the question of voting Conservative doesn't arise. I'll probably go and spoil my ballot, just so as not to be passive."