I like people who show you their real surrounds in Zoom, rather than putting up one of those green-screen images – a tropical island, say, or winsome forest scene.
ehind Robert Harris is what is clearly his study, complete with comfortable-looking sofa, impressive floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and a heavy gold-coloured lectern with a couple of heraldic eagles. He bought it “about 25 years ago” in an antiques shop in London, he says.
“It’s William IV. We live in a Victorian Gothic rectory, and I brought it home thinking my wife would be delighted… She took one look at it and said: ‘That is never leaving your study.’”
You see, already thanks to the background I know things about Harris: He is an impulse shopper of antiques, and his wife (Gill Hornby, sister of Nick), calls the shots – some of them at least.
We are on to talk about Harris’s latest novel, his 15th, Act of Oblivion, set in 1660, described as “an epic journey across continents… a chase like no other”. It’s the story of the hunt for General Edward Whalley and Colonel William Goffe, two of the men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I – thereby ushering in a dour 11-year republic in the UK under Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans.
The book is pure Harris: beautifully researched, immersive, page-turning. It’s what he does best, blending historical fact and fiction to create a gripping story. He has previously written about the Romans, about World War II, about the papacy. So why this deep-dive into 17th century England, I ask?
“I like to move around and do a lot of different things. I saw a line on Twitter about the greatest manhunt of the 17th century, and that led me to a book on the hunt for the regicides and I thought, ‘well this is really great’.”
“Looking at the regicides, who were the most interesting? And I thought this father and son-in-law, and the idea of writing about America just as the English were settling it… It all came together, and I found the modern echoes in it.
“Historical fiction is really contemporary fiction,” he explains. “Whatever calls to you from the past, calls to you because it has some relevance to the present. In this case, the civil war – a country completely divided from top to bottom, a country debating the value of its main institutions, including the monarchy…”
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I see where he’s going.
There is the legacy from that period, from Cromwell – particularly of course in Ireland
Later, we return to this in more detail, with Harris pointing out the similarities with Brexit. “There was something oddly Puritan about Brexit,” he says. “Echoes of The Popish plot… dastardly foreigners seeking to control us. There was a strong element of that. The Brexiteers are to some degree the heirs of the English longbowmen, storming through the fields of northern France.
“And of course, there is the legacy from that period, from Cromwell – particularly of course in Ireland; I won’t need to labour that point to an Irish audience.”
Don’t worry, we will come back to Cromwell as well.
“I think this [civil war] was a real crucible for the forging not only of Britain, but of the western world. This revolution, in the middle of the 17th century, it’s unbelievable really. This is 150 years before the French executed their king and more than two centuries before the Russians get rid of their tsar.
“The other thing that interested me is the way in which America was very much the continuation of the English revolution, the civil war, and that so many people – Puritans, Republicans, fanatics – ended up in America. You can see the seeds of the DNA of America with this kind of religious fanaticism.
“No other country could have had Prohibition, or this Roe v Wade thing. There is still this strain of religious extremism in the American psyche.”
Before writing novels, Harris was a journalist, political editor of the Observer. Does he miss it?
“No I don’t. I’m fascinated by politics and power and I earned my living writing about it as it was unfolding. But there was always something unsatisfying about that because you know you’re chasing smoke really. A lot of it’s not important. The great thing about writing fiction is you can try and universalise it, or find out what are the things that are causing politics to act as it does.
“I’m very glad I was a journalist. In my heart I’m a journalist, most of my friends are journalists, but I’m glad that it gave me a good training to become a novelist. For the past 30 years this is what I’ve felt happiest doing.”
He is skilled at alternating reader sympathy, between the men running for their lives, and the man pursuing them, leading us to root for one, then the other.
“I didn’t want to take sides – I’d always mildly thought I’d have been a supporter of parliament.
“But I did find the Puritan angle of it – the fanaticism, the Protestant Taliban if you like; destroying icons and images, supressing freedom, music, fun – I found that very grim. And alien to my own nature, so rather to my surprise I discovered that in my heart I’m a secret Cavalier, and I wanted to express this ambivalence.”
His ability to write sympathetically about tricky characters extends even to Cromwell – who appears not in person but in the memory of the regicides, as a charismatic but also warm, even gentle man. It’s not an image anyone in Ireland would recognise.
For those hazy on the details, Cromwell led the reconquest of Ireland starting in 1649 and lasting more than four years. He passed the Penal Laws, confiscated land from Catholics, forbade Catholics from living in towns. The human cost of that war was so severe that some estimate around 200,000 of a population of two million were killed.
We hate him, I say. “Yes, of course,” Harris instantly agrees. “I think that Cromwell was, ‘a great man” [he is careful to put the expression in air-quotes].
“He was a force of nature. To have risen with no apparent military training, to control the greatest army in the world, and to do what he did – to upend the whole country, was staggering. He did have certain attractive personal traits. Weirdly, he was the only figure in the country people would follow with grudging respect, even if they had been his enemy.
I believe you have to judge figures in history by the standards of their time
“At the same time, a lot of what he did was disastrous and it was a great relief to me to discover, when I had settled on these characters, Whalley and Geoff, that neither of them went on the expedition to Ireland. But I’m always fascinated by these great figures – Caesar, Hitler, Stalin.
“And Cromwell is of that stature. To study these people tells us something about ourselves.
“But it is astonishing that there is a statue to Cromwell outside the houses of Parliament, because he closed it down, treated it with the least respect of almost any figure in history.”
Perhaps, I suggest, half-joking, a mob of angry Irish people will try to tear down the statue, as has been done with statues of slave traders and colonialists recently. “I suppose it would be Irish people, with great justification, who would feel strongly about that.
“But I am against this. If I believe in nothing else, I believe you have to judge figures in history by the standards of their time.
“Almost everybody in the past, judged by modern standards, was violent, misogynistic, repressive. You can’t just pluck someone out of their time. There’s this superiority over the past that I can’t stand.
“There’s a brilliant line of JG Farrell, from The Siege of Krishnapur,” Harris says. He goes to the bookshelves behind him, takes down a book, and reads: “This is almost my mantra: ‘We look on past ages with condescension as a mere preparation to us, but what if we’re only an afterglow of them?’”
It is, I agree, very clever. But how much does he struggle with leaving the past in the past? Is he conflicted at all? About, say, inherited wealth that is based on the slave trade?
“The truth is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and what might start with good intentions could lead to an increase in conflict and division and could keep old grievances and violence alive. I don’t necessarily think that’s a good idea.
“History is live, it’s not fixed, it constantly shifts with the prevailing mood. That is a theme of mine and always has been. I don’t think you can plunge your hands back into the past and start fiddling with the wiring, thinking you can come up with a different outcome. You can’t. You’re more likely to give yourself a colossal electric shock.”
Does he think we, as a society, are particularly judgmental now?
MeToo is a massive revolution I feel. It would have made working with him in the first place impossible
“Yes I do. And often without the tools to analyse what it is we’re feeling outraged about. I don’t want to spout all these clichés, but there is no doubt people are very, very willing to take offence these days, even when it doesn’t actually affect them. They appropriate the grievances of others. Because of course this is a human need – to feel superior to others.”
I’m conscious at this point of Harris’s film collaborations with Roman Polanski – The Ghost Writer and An Officer And A Spy. Polanski of course has been the subject of outrage, on and off, since 1977 when he was arrested and charged with six offences, including rape, against a 13-year-old girl. He fled the US and has been living mostly in France. However, I don’t bring him up until later.
When I do, Harris says: “It’s sort of receded into the past, I haven’t worked with him for eight years. That was all pre-MeToo. We’ve talked about these upheavals, MeToo is a massive revolution I feel. It would have made working with him in the first place impossible.
“I think it would have… altered the way I spoke about the whole case. So there it was, I worked with him, I made two films, I think they’re pretty good films, they will just have to speak, really there’s nothing left for me to say about it. It is what it is.”
There are many references to the Bible in Act of Oblivion. Did he enjoy his reading of it?
“This is the third book of mine to have a lot of the Bible in it. If I could do one thing, I’d like not to put a lot of the Bible in another book,” he laughs.
“But I love the language. The richness of the language of English in the 17th century as reflected in the King James version, is very powerful. They spoke so brilliantly.”
There are passages in Act of Oblivion, where Whalley and Geoff are hiding in the town of New Haven, going out only briefly under cover of dark, which made me think of lockdown.
Did he also have that in mind as he wrote? “I think the book is influenced by lockdown, very much. The way the nights become so much more vivid because you haven’t been doing anything. You’ve got all this activity in your head.
“It was very strange and I was able to feel what it must be like for them better because of the experience we all went through. Although it doesn’t compare to war for terror and disruption, I think it [lockdown] has led to a kind of mass post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I think it’s changed the world. Changed patterns of life and behaviour. It’s made us feel more vulnerable.”
“I can’t bear to look at my post-apocalyptic novel (The Second Sleep, published 2019) – I couldn’t bear it when I was writing it and I couldn’t bear it during lockdown, and I really can’t stand it now. I think it did have a profound effect. And we haven’t really recovered.“ I think it’s an awareness of vulnerability we all have.”
To the uninitiated, and any Irish person, Harris probably looks very establishment indeed – educated at Cambridge, he was once a close friend of Tony Blair, and Peter Mandelson is godfather to one of his four children – but to anyone with a trained eye for the English class system – and indeed to himself – he is still something of an outsider.
Brought up on a council estate in Nottingham, he made it to Cambridge thanks to what he calls “the old route: an English teacher at school who’d been to this college and thought I had potential and who said to the college, why don’t you interview him.”
“The system did absorb me and take me through. So it worked for me; I think it is much trickier now.
“I think it is harder. In my own specific case. One of the reasons it’s harder, is paradoxically because of greater equality for women. When I went to Cambridge it was still overwhelmingly male. The college I went to, when I started, was men only.
“They started admitting women while I was there. This great pent-up force of highly intelligent women, especially from girls’ private schools, it has to be said, who are brilliant at passing exams and are much more mature at that age than men.
“Combine that with the overseas students who now come in, combine that with the burden of debt – tens of thousands of pounds. My father was a printer. I think if I’d told him I was going to go and study English and saddle myself with so much debt, he would have been horrified. So I think there are a lot of things against you now.”
“I think there are problems coming for Britain, because of this stratified nature of society. I think generally these pandemics are followed by a period of upheaval, revolution, war. I think the Ukraine war may have come partly out of Putin’s isolation during lockdown, and I think there are all sorts of ways this is working through. Plagues and guns go together.”
Back to the killing of kings and overthrowing the monarchy. Does he think the UK is anywhere close to dispensing with the monarchy again? “One lesson I draw from this is that anyone who thinks that England is going to be a republic any time soon needs their head examining.”
So he doesn’t believe Charles III will be the end of the line? “I think it could well be a very destabilising period – but first of all I think Charles actually carries off these things pretty well.
“I think there will be sympathy for him, I think there will be a honeymoon, and I think there will be support for him. That may well be enough, given his age, to carry him through for quite a lot of it. I think people may be a bit surprised by that.”
‘Act of Oblivion’ by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on September 1
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/robert-harris-there-was-something-oddly-puritan-about-brexit-41938868.html Robert Harris: ‘There was something oddly Puritan about Brexit’