Sex, spies, the Seventies and me: Writer Ian McEwan in his most revealing interview yet
07:07 GMT, 20 August 2012
Paperback writer: Author Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan failed miserably in his bid to join MI5. Instantly rejected as a wannabe Bond. Simply not the right stuff to be Smiley. MI5 turned him down flat without even a second’s hesitation.
He applied to become a secret agent while researching for his latest novel, Sweet Tooth, a story of espionage and betrayal set in the early, strike-bound Seventies.
Today our intelligence services encourage prospective spies to make their applications online, a process almost unimaginable from his own student years.
‘All so different from a tap on the shoulder,’ he says. ‘You now have an hour at home to answer multiple-choice questions, all a bit like old- fashioned comprehension tests, but at a slightly pacier, higher level: 800 words on the migratory pattern of Canadian geese, or how to negotiate terrain in Northern Canada.
‘My son Greg and I kept falling out about the answers. We battled on for an hour and then pressed “submit”. Within a tenth of a second we were rejected! Only a machine could turn you down with such brutality.’
It does carry a certain irony that McEwan’s genius with words failed to impress. Is it somehow possible the computer knew the applicant was Britain’s most popular literary novelist
Perhaps it simply did not think this one-time Camden Council dustman, former hippy who travelled in Afghanistan in the early Seventies, Booker Prize-winner and the most feted man of letters in Hollywood could cut it as a British spy.
He moves in influential circles, it is true, but he is hardly a creature of the shadows. McEwan cuts a debonair figure – think white linen shirt and panama hat. At 64, he is also a multi-millionaire, a publishing gold mine who puts friends such as Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie in the shade in terms of fiction sales.
His most famous novel, Atonement, has sold more than four million copies. McEwan recently moved to a picturesque Gloucestershire house dating back to the 18th Century.
Moment of desire: Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in the screen adaptation of McEwan's book Atonement
Was it a case of being too well- balanced for the spooks He has a happy second marriage to fellow novelist Annalena McAfee, and is considered by his two children to be a model father after a tumultuous divorce from his first wife, Penny Allen.
Or maybe he is just too difficult for the Secret Services to pigeonhole. McEwan is a rich man, but from a working-class background. His brother, Dave, is a brickie who was adopted after his mother gave him away aged just one month. He is the ultimate creator of dread and suspense. Yet he is a rationalist and atheist who avoids pop, but loves blues and classical music.
Was he just too clever by half. Or too Left-Bankish This un-abashedly thinking-man-and- woman’s novelist has voted variously Green and Lib Dem and is certainly not afraid of fighting for what he believes. He once chucked out a dinner guest, a card-carrying Communist, who defended the Soviet agenda in Prague: ‘It made me so angry I just asked him to leave.
‘It was a long time ago, one of those drunken dinner parties, but I was genuinely outraged.’
Whatever the truth about his botched application, Ian McEwan has become the spy who never was. Espionage adventures are for the written page only.
Sweet Tooth is published this week and, after Fifty Shades Of Grey, is set to be the most-clutched book on beaches and aircraft this summer. Despite its setting, it is much more than a spy thriller; in fact, McEwan’s novel is a love story laced with good and bad sex, a book that also explores the clash between personal integrity and public duty.
How far can you lie for the good of your country if that means sacrificing personal relationships and integrity It is also primed with one of the most surprising endings you could imagine. McEwan has some 20 volumes of fiction to his name. But he describes this as his first romantic novel.
It is in part based on his own life, a roman a clef, featuring extracts from bits of his unpublished novels. The heroine, Serena Frome, is loosely based on Polly Bide, a girlfriend of McEwan’s from his days at Sussex University.
MI5 natural Ian, centre, and friends on the hippy trail in Afghanistan in 1972
Serena is portrayed as a brilliant maths student with a love of literature who, unlike McEwan, is successfully recruited as a spy. She has an illicit affair with a young novelist in Brighton after being assigned to lure him into being funded by a literary charity, which is really a front for MI5. McEwan found out that this is what actually happened during the Cold War with Encounter magazine, which was controversially funded by the CIA.
Polly Bide, a gifted documentary maker, was most certainly not a spy, but she was an important part of McEwan’s early life, as he explains: ‘Polly was a sociology student at Sussex University and we were very much in love and inseparable. Brighton has always had for me that sort of association . . . it’s a scene of love for me.
Family man: Ian McEwan with his first wife Penny and son Will in 1986
‘I fell in love with this girl at Sussex and, actually, that was more important to me than any of the intellectual stuff and all the academic stuff. What is also disclosed about myself in this book is the thrill and egotism of publishing for the first time.’
Polly died from cancer in 2003. Mixing fact with fiction, the book also includes cameo roles for his friend Martin Amis and publisher Tom Maschler.
Friends for him are increasingly important as he gets older. The Seventies was when he first bonded with Barnes, Amis, Craig Raine, Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens – a group whose talent recognisably speaks for a generation. Together they formed a sort of disparate London School of Literature. His two most recent books have been dedicated to close friends who died. Solar to Polly, Sweet Tooth to Hitchens.
Not that McEwan thinks he would have made a good spy. His own father had made his way up through the ranks to become an Army officer ‘the hard way’ in the Thirties, and discouraged Ian from following in his footsteps.
I wanted to be a spy and cross deserts in disguise. But lie for my country I would never do that
‘ “If you want to join the Army I won’t stop you, but it’s a terrible life and I don’t think you should do it,” he would say to me. I also had a strong sense that I would not wish to do things for my country that were against my conscience,’ he says. E. M. Forster’s controversial preference to side with friends over country comes to mind.
During a session with his university careers officer, when McEwan was unsure what he wanted to do, he had considered becoming a secret agent via the Foreign Office.
‘I had read T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom and thought that’s what I would like to do: speak Arabic, cross the desert on a camel, be in disguise, go native. But then I read it was more a life among the canapes and saw, to my horror, your expected pay grades from the age of 21 to 60. Your whole life mapped out.
Ian based his new heroine on his former girlfriend Polly Bide who died in 2003
‘More to the point, I saw I might be required to say things that I didn’t believe. I was idealistic, a typical member of my generation, so I never thought I could carry out an order that I didn’t believe in.
‘But although I would never do things for my country that I didn’t believe in, I was quite a patriot, oddly enough, through two elements that made me feel supremely proud of being English.
‘One was our literature. I thought, and still sneakily think, it’s the greatest in the world, and the second is my love of our landscape.’
A voracious reader, he is also an avid long walker, spending weeks at a time trekking in the Dolomites, the New Zealand hilltops or the Yorkshire Dales. For McEwan, it is often the precursor to writing a novel.
If his early works – dark, edgy short stories – were seen by some critics as a study in perversity, his later fiction is more about normal working lives. It is also more obviously seeking meaning and purpose.
‘When you’re 22 you have no stake in life, no children, no house. There’s a sort of wild element to one’s imagination,’ he explains, referencing Daniel Defoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year – published in 1722, three years after Robinson Crusoe – in which a character walks away from the plague: he strides north because the sun won’t be in his face and that’s his only reason.
‘That’s the kind of adventure a nuclear holocaust might entail, the sort of reckless pessimism of my writing then, which I had been wanting to address again. That’s fine when you’re young, but now the task is to find out what does it mean in life, what value it has, what good can come of anything at all.
‘As you become older you know you only have 20 or 30 summers left, if you’re lucky, and you want the project, the human project, to continue, whereas in my 20s I was quite interested in it failing. It didn’t trouble me emotionally.’
As he has grown older, McEwan has embraced a more philosophical purpose in writing.
‘I’m part of that envious generation who felt their fathers had a meaningful existence, far more meaningful than we would ever have – fighting a just war – and I would have loved to have been part of that.’
He recalls, while researching Atonement, how he came across a letter in the Imperial War Museum from a young lieutenant to his fiancee written as his company was withdrawing from Belgium and all of France seemed on fire.
‘He wrote, “This is the end of civilisation. I don’t see how we are ever going to get out of this.” He’d just seen 20 or 30 orphans lying on the ground, killed by the shelling of the city centre. In a letter sent by the very last post available, he told her to go and see his father and borrow 80 guineas and buy the house they had seen. He said “only ordinariness will save us”.
‘It was a sort of proposal of marriage and reading that I thought something of my own parents and their generation – they seemed so timid and boring in their love of ordinariness and domestic life and simple things. That was why they went on about the new colour TV or the car they polished every Sunday, the regular unthreatening life. They’d seen things we’d never seen.’
And it was ordinariness that got the literary critics in a lather when in his recent bestseller, Saturday, he wrote about a man who was still in love with his wife – and still wanted to make love to her.
A long-term relationship is not only marvellous for my writing, it’s distinctly erotic
‘I got a lot of kicking from some people because I wanted to describe the premise of a man who loved his work and his wife. I’d written about psychopaths, murderers, incest, rape, all sorts of terrible things, and no one lifted a finger about it. As soon as I posed a happy marriage, for some critics it was the most disgusting betrayal of an aesthetic.
‘One of them wrote, “How could a man who’s been married for 20 years make love to his wife in the morning” I said, “Well . . . it’s biologically possible!” ’
And he holds to that view, and indeed goes further, seeing sexual attraction as a benefit of the security of long-term relationships. As for his wife Annalena, whom he met when she interviewed him for the Guardian: ‘I am very much in love with her and feel very loved by her. She is a lovely mix of rationality, strange knowledge and a fine, refined sense of others, almost to the point of over-sensitivity. Lovely antennae, private and social antennae, a generous spirit and fun, great fun.
Ian and his wife Annalena at the premiere of Atonement
‘But I think, as all people find when they’re in long-term relationships, it’s hugely liberating. You’re free to pursue ideas and thoughts. The mind is free in that security of total commitment and I really like that. I find it not only marvellous in terms of the mental life and the writing, but it’s also distinctly erotic, that sense of total commitment. It’s very pleasing.
‘That sense of complete giving and taking is ideal. I know people say men always crave novelty, sexually, and I think there was a stretch of my life when that was the case, but now I do find it’s the reverse – that it’s the most delicious sense of abandonment really. It has probably shaped Sweet Tooth in some way.’
McEwan, as in his writing, is unafraid to face sexual candour. In Sweet Tooth most of the characters have a bad beginning to their sexual relationships.
‘Maybe it happens to people that they meet a stranger and have brilliant sex straight away. I know it happens in certain novels, but in my view two people have got to learn each other’s needs, desires, and intimations and their physical presence, their bodies.
‘It’s a bit like learning a conversation, so when Serena meets Tom [McEwan’s novelist hero], they have fairly desultory sex in the evening. The process is longer. I think I say something like it’s like learning a new card game. It then gives them no trouble at all.
‘But it is odd when people take their clothes off. It never leaves my mind that when someone you’ve always known as clothed is seen unclothed for the first time, you remember the word “primates”. It’s so odd, the sheer animal, physical, vulnerable nature of us, suddenly without clothes, looking like creatures of the forest or the savannah. Somehow suppressing the hilarity of that because humour is the great enemy of the erotic.’
So, is it difficult to write about sex ‘I think it is. Amis thinks you can’t do it, that it can’t be done. I think he should just put his mind to it. That’s what I think: buckle down,’ he says mischievously. But he concedes: ‘It’s very hard to write about sensation. So you get the hilarious vocabulary of pulp fiction with “explosions” and that gets you nowhere. You probably need to find the emotional interplay and then everything else can follow.’
Amis says you can't write about sex. He should buckle down
The scene in Atonement he spent the most time writing and rewriting was the account of Robbie making love to Cecilia in the library of an English country house. (The film version of the novel, and that scene in particular, helped establish Keira Knightley’s reputation as a sex siren.)
‘These are two old friends,’ he says. ‘Somewhere, dangerously, is the notion that the ideal sexual coupling is between people who know each other so well that they’re almost like siblings. And yet I also know that strangeness can be the thing that sets people on fire.’
With time has also come compassion for McEwan’s literary creations; it is ever harder, he says, to kill off the characters.
‘In my earliest notes for Sweet Tooth I thought it would end with a suicide note [Tom’s] after Serena had led him to shame. I was about a third of a way through and I thought, “I can’t. I just can’t do it to myself.” I didn’t have it in me to murder him, didn’t have the narrative sadism to see him off.’
Perhaps he is not cut out to be James Bond, after all.