‘We’re weak animals in a cold and hostile universe’

P.H. Newby interviewed by Bolivar Le Franc.
Books and Bookmen, XIV (July, 1969), pp. 30-32.

Awards to writers can be destructive as well as constructive. Even if he regards himself as completely non-political, non-evangelical, he is often in some way setting himself against the established things of the society he works in. Since awards come from institutions, in a subtle way they are overtures that could in the long run, depending on his integrity, erode his independence.

‘I don’t think that receiving a prize of £5,000 tax-free is going to cause me to do this – I’m too old. I’m 50 years of age and when you’re 50 you don’t change. I’m an anxious, worrying sort of man and money is not going to stop me being anxious and worrying.

‘I think all this talk about Establishment and non-Establishment is terribly loose and basically uninteresting. Here we are – human beings all living in rather a desper­ate situation – I’m not talking about the economic situation or anything so trivial. Here we are living, 70 years, if we’re lucky, between cradle and grave. We’re terribly vulnerable, weak animals in a cold and hostile universe. I mean, this is my view of life. Life is precarious. Life is hell and this is much more fundamental about a man than any thought about the particular social status he might happen to occupy. What is bad about anyone who gets a certain amount of money and posi­tion is that they should make him com­placent and insensitive. This is horrifying – one of the great disasters that can befall people.’

Newby is a writer with a long run behind him and 18 books to his credit. He sees his receipt of the Booker Prize, Britain’s biggest ever literary award, as a form of reassurance.

‘It’s a bonus, something extra, un­expected and what it does is to reassure you. Being a writer is relatively isolated. You have to sit down month after month, writing away. Then your book is published and then usually it’s ignored. If it’s re­viewed, nevertheless it’s ignored because it’s only one of half-a-dozen novels that were reviewed that week and the reviewer is a busy man – at least he gives that impression. What he tends to say is… “Mr So and So’s latest novel is set in Port Said in 1956… it’s a violent love story… it’s about a man’s moral conflict and the realisation that at the end of it all, etc., etc. …this is not as good as his last novel or this is a bit better than his last novel.” That as a response is rather in­adequate and you feel, well, am I really wasting my time devoting as much energy to this activity as I am? Then if you get a prize you suddenly feel reassured. You feel that what you’ve done has been worthwhile. It gives you enough encouragement to want to go on and do something better.’

His tenacity even in the face of doubt took root early in life.

‘I’ve never had any other serious ambi­tion than to be a writer since I became aware that one had the possibility of the ambition – ten years old, eleven, twelve.

‘I saw myself originally as a poet and I wrote a lot of poetry and indeed some of it was published. I didn’t think I was a very good poet and at that time it seemed that the particular techniques open to the poet were rather limiting. I’m thinking back to the thirties now and the intensity which was characteristic of poetry at that time. I wasn’t terribly interested in the kind of political satire that was the only sort of alternative to the writing of this intensive lyrical poetry. I was much more interested in situations and characters.

‘I started writing short stories. I can remember that in the month of August, 1938, for example, purely as a technical exercise I wrote a short story every day for a whole month – not in the belief that they would be of any quality – I’m sure they were very bad and I had no illusions at the time. But this was a way of acquir­ing a certain discipline for writing and at the end of the time I had thirty-one stories, all of about 3,000 or 4,000 words. That was the first major writing stint I went in for. Needless to say, none of these stories survives.’

At the same time, his personal life had begun the trajectory which was to give him the subject matter for most of his best work.

‘I was a student then. The war broke out and I was in the army. I went to France, came back in 1940 and almost immediately went to the Middle East. Then in 1943 I was seconded by the army to lecture at the University in Cairo where I was for four years. It was towards the end of that time I started writing fiction.

‘The first novel I wrote was Journey to the Interior, set in an imaginary Middle East country – a desert state where oil was being extracted and it concerned the rather intense lives of the Europeans living there. Subsequently I wrote other novels set in the Middle East but it wasn’t until the 1950s I was able to write with the kind of detachment that enables one to write a comedy about Middle East experiences and this was a novel called Picnic at Sakkara. It’s a kind of exploitation of the situation in which I found myself in Egypt at that time, particularly the relationship between a University teacher and his students. It owed a great deal to Forster’s A Passage to India. Indeed Forster’s attitude to the East is something I suppose has made a deep impression on me. Cer­tainly Picnic at Sakkara could not have been written but for the way Forster had written A Passage to India.

‘Then I wrote a number of novels set in England – purely British subjects. But it’s only when I detach myself from the British scene and in some way bring my Middle East experience into the novel I really think the thing comes alive.’

The Middle East has always, of course, exercised a peculiar fascination for the type of Englishman who is a mixture of writer-adventurer-soldier. T. E. Lawrence has become the classic example.

‘In my particular experience, of course, it was because this was the part of the world where I found myself. It wasn’t that I elected to go there. From the literary point of view it was important because for the first time I, as an English writer, found myself living in a society that was outside the European tradition, outside the Christian tradition. Where you live in another society where the traditions are as different from ours as those, you natur­ally find your imagination is very stimulated.

‘There’s another reason for my interest in the Middle East. We, the British that is, are rather a subdued people. Compared with other societies one could think of, life is fairly gentle here. The whole tone of life is one of accommodation and of getting on with one another. Egypt is a contrast in this respect because there, the extreme situation very often arises of people refusing to compromise and choose the middle course. It’s either right or wrong and the forcing of any issue to its intellectual conclusion is something that an Englishman finds very startling.

‘There’s another thing about Egypt that attracts me and that is that the Egyptian society is dominated by words, the Arabic language. It’s a very complex and difficult language and I can’t pretend that I know it. But I had enough knowledge to notice, for example, very often what a contrast there was between what was actually hap­pening and what was said to happen. There’s a quality in the Arabic language where unless you’re very careful you’re talking about something that doesn’t quite exist. It takes on a life of its own, a vitality, and before you know what you’re doing you’re following hobgoblins and lights and so on which aren’t really there. Now the Egyptian is very conscious of this possibility in his language and it means he’s aware of a kind of contrast between appearance and reality which I found enormously interesting. It’s a tradi­tion in the English novel, of course, to be preoccupied with the contrast between appearance and reality. It’s one of the recurrent themes in English literature.’

It is also a theme of Something to Answer For, the book which won him the award. Townrow is a middle-aged English­man living on money embezzled from a Disaster Fund it is his job to distribute. He is besieged by letters from a friend in Egypt, the widow of a rich man, who is convinced her husband was murdered and wants justice done. Townrow finally goes adventuring more in search of financial rewards than to see justice done. On the night of his arrival in Port Said he’s physically assaulted for reasons which become clear later and he spends the rest of the book in a maze, uncertain as to what was truth and what illusion in the events taking place around him.

‘The particular situation in which this man finds himself is an extreme one, of course. He goes through horrifying experi­ences. He’s hit on the head and suffers loss of memory. My story would not have been plausible were it not for that. Because at the beginning of the book he’s a man who makes certain assumptions about society and life and himself and these assumptions are changed to such a point that he has an entirely different moral attitude towards life at the end. The transformation is sup­posed to take place over a period of something like five months and I don’t believe that unless the man had gone through this horrifying experience he would’ve undergone this change of moral outlook. It was a kind of brainwashing process I suppose.’

The novel takes place during the Suez Canal crisis and seems at times to be making some moral judgement on the actions of the various participants involved – but Newby rejects this.

‘It isn’t that sort of book. It isn’t a book about were the British and French right or wrong to do what they did – isn’t a politi­cal novel on that level at all. I chose this particular situation because it was one in which I imagined that a man finding him­self there in Port Said at the time would naturally go through a process of question­ing about the rightness or wrongness of his government.’

The book employs a style of shifting focuses, sudden transitions.

‘The whole problem in this book was one of making the situation of the central character, Townrow, and particularly his change of outlook, plausible and utterly convincing. So that I wanted to involve the reader in the situation with Townrow as much as I could. I could do that, I think, by subjecting the reader to a certain amount of surprise and uncertainty himself – so that he could rub his eyes and go back and say did he mean that, or so and so.

‘I do believe very strongly that a novelist should know precisely what he’s doing and that when a novel is read properly the meaning should be crystal clear. I don’t believe in mystification or complication for the sake of the thing. But in this particular case I hope by adopting a certain literary technique to involve the reader in the surprise and bewilderment which the central character is going through.

‘I’m not conscious of influences in the sense that I’ve studied a writer and deliber­ately imitated what he’s doing. But certain writers excite me because of their tech­niques. Charles Dickens is one of these. You described certain techniques that I used in this book. I think you’d find them all in Dickens. Dickens was a very con­scious literary artist in the manipulation of reader responses.’

In contrast to writers whose technique he admires there are those he avoids be­cause he is afraid of the consequences of possible emulation.

‘I fear that they could have such a strong influence on me that I would imi­tate them. One of these is D. H. Lawrence. I can’t read Lawrence because he has such a hypnotic effect upon me, and I’m afraid he would do something to my writing. And I find it difficult to read James Joyce for the same reason. Both these writers in their very different ways would, I suspect, have rather a sinister influence on me if I were to pick them up and read them once again because they have such very strong writing personalities.’

Newby is Controller of the BBC Third Programme.

‘My writing life is quite separate, how­ever, and there’s no link between the BBC and my writing really. When Faber pub­lished the book there was no reference to my BBC job on the jacket and I particu­larly asked them not to do so.’

But this reason for maintaining a sepa­rate job is to ensure contact with the everyday world.

‘I came to adopt the view there was something basically wrong for me in being a full-time writer. I just wanted to write novels – I didn’t want to do journalism of any sort. But the thought of sitting at home doing nothing but write novels was something I didn’t feel I could spend my life doing. The opportunity came to join the BBC as a talks producer and I very gladly took it.

‘It isn’t a moral issue – it’s that a man who spends his time writing novels, partic­ularly if he sits in the country doing it as I did, knows less and less about the world that he lives in. He has fewer and fewer things to write about. If he’s not careful he writes in an increasingly narrow and subjective way.’

He has already started on his next novel.

‘It won’t be finished for at least two years. It’s a much more ambitious novel than anything I’ve tried in the past. It’s really about what it is to be a political animal, successful or unsuccessful as the case may be. The central character in this story is a man who in middle age through various circumstances decides to stand for Parliament. This means he has to be chosen by a constituency committee and this process of interrogation and self-examination through which he goes is meant, I hope, to illuminate something about the kind of society we live in.’

P.H. Newby. Photograpgh by Mark Gerson.Photograph by Mark Gerson.

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

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Cover Image

Detail from The Picnic at Sakkara cover design, Davies Bailey, 1955.