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Interview | Alastair Niven OBE LVO | Writer, lecturer & arts administrator

Alastair Niven is the author of four books and numerous scholarly articles on aspects of Commonwealth and post-colonial literature. A judge of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1994 and of the Man Booker Prize in 2014, he was also for twenty years Chairman of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He was director of literature at the Arts Council and at the British Council and is a former president of English PEN. His memoirs In Glad or Sorry Hours are published by Starhaven Press.

Where were you born and brought up? Were you a happy child? 
I was born in a nursing home in Edinburgh.  It is now a Hilton hotel, where the judging of the Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year took place in 1998.  I found myself deliberating with my fellow judges in the room in which I first saw the light of day.  I had come full circle.  As for a happy childhood – by and large, except when my father was on his daily rant about a misplaced towel or some crumbs on the carpet.

Did you have any favourite games? 
N
ot really.  I came from a very sporty family and wasn’t much good at those sorts of games. I liked playing ’lurkey’ though, which was hide and seek under another name.

What sorts of books were in your family home, and what did you read when growing up?   
We had quite a lot of books around the house. My father collected books from the Reprint Society and could quote reams of poetry (we discovered a Keats poem in his wallet when he died and a portion of it is on his gravestone); my mother read light fiction; and both my parents encouraged my brothers and me to read anything, including comics, cartoons, cereal packets and other people’s letters.

From Dulwich College and Caius College, Cambridge, you went on to study for an M. A. in African literature in Ghana in 1966. To arrive seven months after Kwame Nkrumah was removed from office by a coup d’état must have been a rude awakening. To what extent did the conflict and instability entail a loss of innocence, and impact your future trajectory?
One day early on in my time as a postgraduate student at the University of Ghana the campus emptied.  I asked where everyone had gone.  It was to view the public execution of nine soldiers who had tried to lead a counter coup.  That was a loss of innocence for me: how could anyone want to see others die?  But I made lifelong friends whilst in Ghana, met my wife, learned about African culture, saw my own country more objectively and critically.  I think of my three years there as the roots of stability, not instability.

As Director General of the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden, and Director of Literature at the Arts Council and at the British Council, over and beyond supporting and promoting writing and open debate, you were an early advocate of post-colonial literature and decolonising the literary canon. Taking the long view, how do the arguments from back then rethinking Britishness, Englishness and the post-imperial world differ to those put forward today?
In some ways the differences are marginal.  It slightly irks me that young authors and academics are speaking today as though no one before them had thought of decolonising the syllabus in schools and universities, or had understood before them that the wealth of modern Britain was founded on slavery and land appropriation.  Fifty years ago, I was convening teacher groups in Edinburgh to discuss African and Caribbean novels in order to test out their suitability for teaching in classrooms.  We encountered resistance sometimes – a headteacher in Pitlochry saying this was irrelevant because there were no black or Asian people living in his town, for example, or a prim Miss Jean Brodie complaining of a novel by Kole Omotoso that the students in the story never washed up their dishes after eating and this would be a bad example to the ‘gels’ at her school.  But by and large our suggestions were welcomed and often adopted as teaching texts.  But we have moved a long way forward since those days and I particularly note how students today are almost entirely free of racial arrogance.  Writers of African, Asian, or First Nation descent are no longer knocking at the door of canonical respectability, begging for admission.  They are holding court inside.  They are British by virtue of their diversity.  There is still a way to go, but let’s celebrate how far we have come. 

How is the Commonwealth misunderstood, and what is its purpose?
Apart from knowing that the Commonwealth is dear to the heart of its Head, who is of course The Queen, I don’t think most people in the U.K. know much about the Commonwealth.  Once a year, on Commonwealth Day in early March, if you strayed into Westminster Abbey for the annual Commonwealth service, you might think otherwise. It will be packed with invited school parties; the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, religious and civic leaders, and the heads of charities will be there, all paying obeisance to the Commonwealth ideal.  Then it often seems as though this is forgotten for the next year.  But a lot goes on behind the scenes: technological co-operation, scholarship programmes (I was a Commonwealth Scholar in Ghana and I now chair a committee promoting the scheme), literary awards, legal training, parliamentary exchanges, and of course, more visibly, the hugely successful Commonwealth Games every four years.  What worries me is whether the Commonwealth is sufficiently observant of its own charter, advocating democracy and human rights.  There are too many political leaders determined to stay on indefinitely or clearly corrupt.  Homosexuality is illegal in well over half of the Commonwealth countries, capital punishment is still administered in many of them, minorities are persecuted.  On the positive side, the Commonwealth gives a platform to small states such as Malta and Rwanda, both of which have recently chaired the organisation. Britain is only one of its 53 members and has to know its place, which is good for us.  I would not say that the Commonwealth is misunderstood, but rather that it is not as effective as it could be in highlighting its own achievements or in explaining itself to a sceptical public.

It is often said that in England we’re in awe of intellectuals, and scared of them: was this borne out at all during your time as President of English PEN?
English PEN is full of intellectuals and, though I might have been in awe of many of them, I was never scared!  As a nation I think we can find intellectuals a bit intimidating, but we go on producing them.  Unfortunately, however, we now have the most unintellectual government of my lifetime.  I can remember Prime Minister Macmillan saying he never went to bed without a Trollope beside him, and politicians like Roy Jenkins wrote serious books.  Churchill even won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Now look at them!  Is there any evidence that any of them read?  The present Prime Minister flaunts Latin phrases and drops classical names, but it’s showing off, not serious engagement with ideas. 

As Principal of Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, you orchestrated residential conferences, lectures and discussions. What would you say are the three key skills required to chair a harmonious and successful meeting?
Knowing your audience.  Having a warm relationship with your speakers.  Good time keeping. 

What do you think makes a good story?
Interesting and spirited language with which to tell the story. Rooting the story in some kind of recognisable reality, even if it’s a fantasy.  Having characters that the reader or listener can care about.  How often have I watched a play on television or read a flat novel and said at the end “I really couldn’t care about any of them!”

Your view of writing courses?
Suspicious, frankly.  I think the taught course often shows through, so that the novel or poem seems written to a formula.  But having said that, the Arvon Foundation does a brilliant job of enthusing and encouraging writers through its residential programmes. 

Your just-published memoir, IN GLAD OR SORRY HOURS, gives unusual insights into running cultural institutions, and reads at times like a Who’s Who of post-colonial literature. Which authors and books have most inspired you?
Golly, that’s a question as long as a piece of string.  I once answered a question about which book had most influenced me by naming Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten, because that was a tale which I read at the age of five and adored.  It got me reading for life.  Of the weightier classics, I have come to Dickens later than most people.  He is never boring and often hilarious.  I am a great Jane Eyre fan, and its descendant Wide Sargasso Sea is a masterpiece.  I love the Metaphysical poets and I have a soft spot for longwinded Edwardian plays.  From Commonwealth and post-colonial literature I am bound to name the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, because I wrote a book about him.  Across the Black Waters is a great war novel and perhaps the only one to understand the confused loyalties of Indian sepoys sent as cannon fodder to the First World War trenches.  For a chapter I was recently invited to write for a new book on his work I have just re-visited Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope, where the Albigensian heresy meets Indian Vedanticism.  In my recent memoir I name Chinua Achebe as the writer I most greatly admire among the many I have been privileged to know personally.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
I had a limited supply of the first and even less of the second.  Hard work and empathy take you a long way.

Your chief characteristic? And your chief fault?
I want to do things well.  I only sometimes achieve it, but when I do, I am quietly proud.  My chief fault?  My wife will say it is monopolising her laptop when she wants to use it.  My ‘children’ will say it is not sufficiently helping her.  I will not admit to any fault here for fear of taking up too much space.

Your views on book publishing?
I think book publishing is a rather good idea. All my life people have been predicting the death of the book and the decline of reading.  Neither will happen.  I think the infinite adaptability of publishing, so that it now happens in so many forms and can be responsive to immediate demand, is a great advance.  I am delighted that small independent publishers and booksellers seem to be holding their own, thanks to the commitment of those who run them.  I am optimistic about publishing because the human imagination will never run dry and will always need an outlet.

Your views on new technology and social media?
I betray my age by saying that social media does not interest me much.  It is of course marvellous that we can communicate instantly with anyone anywhere.  I am expecting the first tweet from Mars any time now.  Zoom has been my salvation during the pandemic.  But I hate the invective and trolling that social media encourages.  As for the way in which Facebook and Google exert more power and have more wealth than some nation states, I fear for democracy.  I see people stumbling along the pavement, oblivious to others as they peer into their little machines, or entering messages on their devices whilst driving, and I wonder if we are all going to end up as the desensitised robots we are also creating in laboratories. Why design a robot if one is becoming one anyway?   And then I remember that at lunch today my wife asked me what was the point of her cooking and the two of us sitting down together at a table if I was going to spend the time examining my emails on my smartphone.  We are all guilty where social media are concerned.  Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!   But the brilliance of new technology is the wonderment of my lifetime.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read, obsessively.  Observe the world around you.   Don’t keep putting off the day when you have to start writing.

Some of your favourite writers translated into English?
So many.  Baudelaire, who I have just quoted.  The ancient Greek dramatists, as translated for Penguin by my former schoolteacher Philip Vellacott.  So many modern novelists, including Finland’s Bo Carpelan and Portugal’s José Saramago.  A few years ago I chaired the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic literature in translation, meeting as I did so a wealth of superb writers from the Middle East and North Africa.  One of my proudest boasts is that at the Arts Council I created a fund for subsidising translation, calling on the expertise of many specialists.  The fund still exists, run now by English PEN.  Slowly but surely public taste is becoming more receptive to foreign writing, a corrective to the isolationism and the delusions of exceptionalism that have blighted British politics of late.

Which people, living or dead, would you invite to a party?
How big is my party?  Am I Gatsby or Timon?  I will limit it to five guests, as in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.  I think they will be Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, the Brazilian tennis player Maria Bueno, the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, the Indian god Krishna, and the sovereign Mary, Queen of Scots.  To make up the gender balance I might have to invite a sixth.  I nominate Georgia de Chamberet, who has done so much for all who are reading this.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Theatre tickets at any price.  Travel to remote destinations such as St. Helena (in the days when foreign trips were still permissible).

Edith Piaf sang “Non, je ne regrette rien” – do you have any regrets?
Yes, not being kind enough to so many people who deserved better, beginning with my mother.

Your greatest achievement?
My family.

Your bedside reading?
Yesterday’s Guardian.  My emails. Last year’s Booker Prize winner.  My own memoir, In Glad or Sorry Hours.

In Glad or Sorry Hours – a memoir by Alastair Niven | 256 pages £14 February 2021 Starhaven Press | ISBN: 9780936315485

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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