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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  September 15, 2017 12:30am-1:01am BST

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welcome to hardtalk to the ease the way we use words changing? most of us probably write less than we used to, read less than we used to and spend far my guess today has no awards. that is his swimming against an irresistible cultural tide? howwood, welcomed. delighted to be here. thank you for having me on. i wa nt to here. thank you for having me on. i want to ask you, if you could reflect on a long writing career. how long do you think it took for you to find your own authentic
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voice? 20 years. 20 years from being — from finishing university, and thinking i'm out in the world, and now i'm going to write, and 20 years before i could write anything that looked to me like a book. i'm tempted to ask, then, what kept you. that is what many people asked. especially those who thought i would never be a novelist anyway. and i worried, myself, about it. my father used to say, well, where is it, then? that spurred me on. that must have annoyed you. i think my problem was that perhaps a bit over—educated. i had been educated to revere the classic so much, to revere dh lawrence and tolstoy and dostoevsky and dickens. if i could be them, i didn't want to be anyone. so you wanted to be literary. perhaps you were not confident in your own take on the world and your own voice, that it was worth listening to? dead right. if what you had been reading was the great writers, and i revered them, and you think you do not measure up to that.
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at 18 and 25, i did not measure up to dostoevsky. i wouldn't swear to it that i measured up now, but i was certainly nowhere near to it. it was only by lowering my expectations of what i was going to do, and writing not a great, massive, tragic novel about the state of the world, but a comic novel about what it is like to be miserable as a lecturer at a midlands polytechnic. when i did that, is when i got going. what do you think changed for you, for a guy who wanted to write in a literary fashion in his 20s, butjust couldn't find the means or the confidence? what changed for you ? it was partly lowering not just my expectations, but my ambitions. i — i couldn't write a great tragic novel, so i finally decided i would do something that i thought i could do, which was be funny. i knew i could be funny. i have been able to do
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essays at university that made my lecturers laugh. but — but — but the snobs in the literary world have never really rated funny. no, they never really have rated funny. and they still don't rate funny. and you still get in a lot of trouble if you are funny. nevertheless, it got me going. and before, people thought this is a comic novelist, we know what we think of him, they were surprised by my writing, because they had never seen anything like it before. so you decided to be funny. what about jewishness? yeah, yeah. you are onto something here. because i never thought i would write about being jewish. i am interested in being jewish. but... i've read a bit about your background, and you say that your parents didn't go to synagogue much, they didn't expect you to be... not at all. i had a bar mitzvah, and that was it. my father hoped that i would marry a nicejewish girl. i am married a half—nice jewish girl. no, a nice, half—jewish girl. you married several times... laughter. what i know aboutjewishness now, i have found out through my reading. i was in a community they did not care very much about it.
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there was a very nice secularity in thejewish community i grew up in in manchester, in the 50s. we were the second or third generation. we had come from central and eastern europe, and they wanted to forget where they had been. they wanted to be english. they wanted to go to english universities and read english books. i was totally and completely english, and had his extra card to play whenever i wanted it, which was the being jewish. no more than that. but look, nobody can explorejewish consciousness without running up pretty quickly — nevermind all the humour and comedy — against the most tragic events of the 20th century, but you can go back thousands years. thejewish story is a story that is woven through with suffering. but my question to you is how easy has it been for you to find the laughs, the humour,
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the light side, in anti—semitism, in the holocaust itself, which you've also taken on, in at least one of your novels? imean... how you do it? it's not — it's not difficult. it is what we do. it is the very thing we do. jews make very good jokes. some say that the best jokes in the world arejewish or aboutjews. if it is going to be aboutjews, then only thejews can really tell it well. the reason for that is precisely because we know that life is not funny. if you arejewish, your history tells you that life is not funny, and everything ends up badly. out of that — out of that grows a particular kind of morbidity, a kind of bleak inexpectancy which permeates the bestjoke. people who fall around and do banana skin jokes aren't,
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to me, funny. and that has not been my comedy. to bejewish is to makejokes. to be a jewish writer is to need to be, in some way another, a comic writer. but to be — to what extent do you fear that you are a little exclusive in this pursuit of a very jewish consciousness? it is riven through all of your... in one of your books, kalooki nights, you describe it as the mostjewish book ever. and i remember the finkler question, and i'm notjewish. i enjoyed it, and it was a prize—winning book, but i did think to myself, i wonder how wide the readership for this book will be. do you ever wonder about that? yes. when i finish the book, the normal order is my wife sees it. she says she likes it, but it mightjust be the two of us. my agent said he really liked it, but that could just be the three of us. nobody that i showed it to thought it was going to travel. because it was too jewish?
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yes. because the idea of a novel centred around twojewish men in london talking about being jewish, and one of them wasn't evenjewish. it did seem private, but it was not private to thejudges, and it was not private to the people who bought the book. manyjews after reading this asked me if the non—jews get this. and the answer is yes, they do get it. unless they don't want to get it, doggedly refusing to get it. they do get it. because being jewish — being — i mean, we've had enouthewish literature, and jewish history and talk of jewishness to have an idea about what it is about. everybody is a bit ofjew, really. jew is the outsider. the english have always been interested injewishness, the puritans were. thejews came up with christianity, don't forget. you arejewish, so you are speaking from a jewish perspective right now. those who are not might be thinking, to coin a clichejewish phrase, enough already.
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i am interested in one particular aspect which comes up in the finkler question. i will talk about the political aspect of it in a bit, and that is anti—semitism. in the book — i've written it down — there is one character who says anti—semitism was becoming again what it had always been: "an escalator that never stopped, in which anyone could hop on at will." that is a pretty discomfiting line of narrative. anyone can hop on to anti—semitism at will. do you really feel that? well, what they mean by anyone? well, put it this way: people hop on and hop off it. anti—semitism has its moments and goes away. it's having — it's having a moment again in our time. i wrote a novel five years ago, a dystopian novel called j, which imagined a world withoutjews. because i had decided with what was going on in europe, with so many attacks onjews, could it be, after such a short period after the holocaust,
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it could be here again? how could people allow themselves to think that so soon? couldn't we have at least another 20 years, 70 years? the fact that it was there again without much wait made me wonder if it was eternal. is thejew an eternal other? we know that every society needs an other, a scapegoat, somebody they can blame for what is going wrong. thejews have been blamed for what has been going wrong for a couple of thousand years. you would have thought that it would have stopped. i have not had a hard time in this country. i have had a easy time in this country. ifeel i can move freely in this country, touch wood, without personal anti—semitism. but it would be madness to suppose that it is not there. and it is here in a particular guise.
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well, maybe sometimes you see it in places where, actually, it is something else. and i am thinking here about the conflation, some would say, the conflation of anti—semitism and anti—israeli sentiment, or anti—zionist sentiment. i don't conflate it. some do. well, there may be some who do. some are accused of conflating it when they do not. they are two separate things, but that does not mean that they are bound to be separate things. it is quite true that an anti—zionist need not be an anti—semite. but that doesn't mean that an anti—zionist is never to be an anti—semite. and you do have to... they are two distinct and different things. one is political and ideological the other is about the hate of the people and religion. depending on the nature of the anti—zionism. it is not a fixed entity. if somebody said they wanted to see the end of the state of israel, and the end of the only country
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in the world that isjewish, i question how far that's only political. because why would they say that? i question those attacks on zionism that don't know what zionism is actually is. zionism is not an imperial force. it doesn't exist to oppress people. it was a liberationist movement cooked up in the minds of europeans, many of them notjews, at the end of the 19th century, to find a way to liberate jews from the oppression that they were suffering all over europe, and in some places suffering themselves. if we separate zionism from its early ideals, that is having else. i do not want to go too far down the track analysing what zionism is. we have spoken to fascinating people on this show before, like ilan pappe, an israeli who is an anti—zionist, who we have explored these ideas with. but with you, i wanted to focus on what this has meant for you in your relationship with your own — if i can put it this way — your own domestic
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british political views. what i am getting at is the degree to which you have chosen to enter this debate about whether the leadership of the labour party, jeremy corbyn and some of the others around him, have failed to root out what you have described as anti—semitism and are thereby seen — i don't know whether by you but certainly by some others who have voiced similar view to yours — as fellow travellers on anti—semitism. why have you chosen to fight this battle? i would like to say something grand and said that it chose me. i was not the first person to see that there were problems with anti—semitism in the labour party. a lot of labour politicians were saying that, and a lot of jewish labour politicians. but a lot of labour mps who happen to bejewish and still full of anxiety about it to this day. we had a two individuals, ken livingstone, well—known in the party, and naz shah, mp, who said things which were recanted by naz shah, not so much by ken livingstone...
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not at all. but these things were put through a series of investigations, and they were suspended for a time from the party. the labour party has dealt with that. it is not dealt with it. it had the worst enquiry you could imagine. it was an inquiry that lasted about three weeks. lots of people were invited to submit their thoughts. i submitted some thoughts. no sign at all that the lady leading the inquiry had read them, or that she'd read very, very much submitted byjewish thinkers and writers and talkers. the inquiry was — the inquiry found almost nothing. it was framed in the crudest possible language, saying that some things make people uncomfortable, and so we should change the words a little. the rabbi says, he is talking of his group in thejewish community, we don't accept that anti—semitism is right on the labour party. —— rife in the labour party.
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the examples that have been repeated in the media, many have been reported in accurately, and only a very few seem to be genuine examples of anti—semitism. i just wonder why you have chosen to invest so much in this, as you would say, as a signal of something that is so very wrong. i would wonder why someonejewish would choose to say what he said. there arejews who think... i do know who he is talking about because any number ofjews feel as i know about this and encourage me to speak out as i do. there is a great deal of anxiety. it isn't that i feel that if i walked intojeremy corbyn in a room he would punch me on the nose and call me a dirtyjew, but i think what he would do is look sneeringly at my concerns, he would not take my point that there is a kind of anti—zionism which does morph into anti—semitism. he wouldn't believe it. he is an idealogue.
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he has believed for a long time, the palestinian cause is a good cause, i don't dismiss or deride the palestinian cause, but it has been simplified and sentimentalised at the expense of manyjews and certainly many israelis and i think that should be taken on board and notjust sneered at, and i don't have any sense at all thatjeremy corbyn or those around him would do anything but sneer at the things i'm saying to you now. well, we will interview, i hope, on this subject, jeremy corbyn and others. one of your greatest concerns expressed in recent days has been the impact of social media platforms. in particular, i think you focused on twitter, on our culture and particularly on what they are doing to our children. you have said twitter will make children illiterate within 20 years. that's surely a polemic. you don't really believe that, do you? well, i'm a polemicist. as well as being a novelist, i'm a polemicist. yes, but there's a place where polemic departs from reality,
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and you seem to have hit it. i don't think i have departed from reality at all. in fact, i've been slightly misreported — only slightly misreported there. i don't think twitter is the — i mean, i wouldn't tweet. i think it's a totally foolish thing to do, and i'm not at all surprised that president trump... donald trump used it as a key vehicle for winning the presidency of the united states. and for making the world a more stupid place. i'm not going to just back victory for the sake of victory. america is more stupid now that trump is in power than it was before and the idea that there are 50 million people who want to know what he said that night, well, i want to know whether we live in a safe world. but i'm not talking about twitter. i was actually talking about the social media, generally, and i believe that absolutely. the whole business of the internet, from the mobile phone, which is — i'm not sneering at other people. the mobile phone has affected my memory, it's affected my capacity for concentration and i'm not the only... and i hardly use it compared to some people. i sit there and i look at my phone and i wonder about my phone
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and i can't read pages of prose the way i used to be able to and i'm not doing all the other stuff. this is perfectly clear. i hate to break it to you, but maybe the younger generation is better at multitasking and using their brains than you are. it's a fair point, but if it were true, i would say fine. i'm too old for it, my generation will pass away and how wonderful that this brand—new generation who can do everything — they can't. they're not reading, they can't concentrate, they don't know what — they don't know the nature of the discourse that they're reading. they don't know — i often see people commenting on something i've written, they don't know what it is, they don't know if it's funny, they don't know if i mean it, they don't know if it's ironic. social media has... hang on, if i may interrupt for a sec! but why, when i'm enjoying myself! well, i can tell you are. but we began with something interesting — you saying that in the early part of your writing life, you were too snobbish and it was only when you abandoned that that you became your true self as a writer.
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so here's my thought about social media, whether it be facebook, twitter or whatever. you don't like it because there's still a residue of that elitism in you. but if you flip the argument around, you could say that many people who are never going to read novels or the extended journalism that you write actually do receive information in a new way through the internet, through these social media platforms and it's actually spreading knowledge, spreading the ability to express a personal opinion in ways that we have never imagined before. well, i want people now to be — i want the very best that people have thought and said to be available to people. to be able to do that, you have to concentrate. the best things to have been written are difficult. many neuroscientists writing about these problems now, and there are many of them, notjust elitist writers like me, are concerned about what the whole business of the social media and the internet are doing to our memory. we can't remember things, we can't connect what we read before with what we're reading now. we have — you say people are getting information. information is not
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the most important thing. the thing that matters to me as a writer when you are reading something is... look, the importance of literature and, indeed, in art is its impersonality. in art, we can escape our merely mundane, political selves and we can find a self, we can be surprised into finding something else. when we read a novel, ideally, we are open. we're reading a different kind of voice, we're hearing words used differently. if the kids hear words used differently on the social media, they'll go screaming mad. well, jonathan douglas, director of the national literacy trust who studies these things in detail concludes, "digital technology can play a hugely important role in giving children and young people a route into reading and helping develop their literacy skills." fine, and he says it can and i say it can do the opposite. and i don't say it can't. i wouldn't — i don't say that what he's saying is a lie or impossible.
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i'm saying it's having other effects too that we should care about. we should care if people don't know when they're reading something on their phone, where it's appeared, what part of the newspaper it's appeared, is it an article? sometimes they read things that have been attributed to me that they think‘s an article. i haven't written it. they don't know the nature of the discourse. yes, but the point about internet, surely, and the way people use it is that it is bottom—up. it's killing off the hierarchy, and this would apply to the mainstream media, people like me as much as anybody, it is bottom—up in a way that is challenging, yes, perhaps, potentially dangerous, but also hugely exciting and empowering. well, if you're saying this is a wonderfully democratic movement, it is a wonderfully democratic movement. and people who were not heard before are heard now. now, that's only a great virtue if we feel it's a good idea. it's a great virtue if you believe in democracy. seems to me you're losing faith in democracy very fast. 0h, of course i'm losing faith in democracy! look what democracy‘s done.
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it gave us brexit in our country, gave us donald trump over there. i'm not a great believer in democracy. well, they're answers that you happen to disagree with, but they are answers that the people came up with through the process of a democratic election. are you saying these days you prefer putin's managed democracy or china's... no, no, no... what are you saying? no, i think democracy — democracy is the best worst system that we have. it is — and one can't think of anything better. but that doesn't mean that we should not be made extremely anxious by it, and any philosopher who's put his mind to democracy knows all along that there's a secret problem with democracy and that's the people. the people often get things wrong. are you saying you don't think the people get things wrong? according to you, recently, it's not so much the people, it's the result. you know, you like democracy, as long as it makes the right decision. sure i do. do we want the wrong...? but who are you, no offence, howard jacobson, to describe to me what the right answer is? that's no good. i don't know what the right answer is, but it's up to me as a citizen that cares about the country i live in and that cares about the people in whose name we value democracy
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that they don't make a disastrous decision, and if people make a disastrous decision... then in democracies, they right it. there will come a time, another election, when they will kick — top quote the phrase, "kick the bums out"... ah, but in a referendum, you don't get another election. we are being told by people, that's it, the people have spoken and they've spoken forever. the people have never spoken forever. it doesn't start with me, it starts with plato. people have been worrying about democracy for a long time. and a true democrat should worry about democracy. given we're almost out of time, we cannot go over the ins and outs of brexit right now. i want to stay focused upon you for my last question. ijust wonder whether, having lived this long life, written these many books, indulged in so much political and cultural commentary, do you believe you've acquired wisdom? do you feel much wiser than you did as that writer setting out in his late 30s to write the great novel? i think i know a few things i didn't know before and i think i know how little i know now, and i think i'm wise enough to know that it's terrible folly to suppose
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that you are wise. i am prepared to admit that most of the time i am a fool. and are you more at peace with yourself? yes. that's a wonderful way to end. let's leave it right there. howard jacobson, i really thank you for being on hardtalk. thank you. pleasure. thank you very much indeed. hello there. 0ur weather has taken on a decidedly cool and, dare i say it, quite autumnal feel as we head on through friday. it will remain cool, after quite a chilly start, and we will see a mixture of sunshine and showers. showers from the word go across northern england, into wales and the south—west. these gradually drifting further south and east, and as the showers arrive in east anglia and south—east england, they will turn very heavy indeed, with some hail and some thunder. all the while, showers keep going across northern ireland and a good part of scotland. so let's take a closer look, then, at ii:00pm in the afternoon. a mixture of sunny spells and one or two showers to the south—west of england. 15 degrees there in plymouth. could get to 16 in southampton, in the dry spells. but bear in mind, as the showers
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drift through, the temperatures will drop away by a good few degrees. maybe just 12 or 13 degrees in some of the showers across the south—east and east anglia — very heavy, with hail and thunder. a mixture of sunshine and showers for northern england. quite a few showers across north—east scotland, a fair old breeze blowing here, as well. but southern scotland a better chance of seeing more in the way of dry weather, and some spells of sunshine. sunny spells and hefty downpours for northern ireland, and a similar story for wales, and particularly close to the west coast it will be fairly windy. now, as we go on through friday night, many of the showers will fade away. but some will continue, most likely across north—east england, into wales, the south—west, some showers continuing across north—east scotland, as well. many other places will turn dry, with some clear spells. maybe the odd mist there, and temperatures easily down to eight, nine, or 10 degrees, but some spots in the countryside cold enough for a touch of grass frost. so we begin the weekend between this area of low pressure to the east and this area of high pressure trying to push in from the west. it leaves us with a northerly wind — never a warm wind direction.
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there will be some spells of sunshine, but again, some showers, some of them heavy, and those temperatures around 13 degrees for aberdeen and glasgow. 12 in belfast, maybe 15 for cardiff, and 16 for london. as we go through saturday night, as the showers fade, and where we see clear skies and light winds, it will turn very chilly indeed. 0ur towns and cities perhaps down into single digits. but, out in the countryside, could be chillier still. we're looking at lows of one, two, three degrees. they could well be a touch of grass frost to start sunday morning, but sunday should see some improvements, certainly in terms of the showers. fewer showers, more dry weather, more sunshine. 15 to 18 degrees. and that is the story for the weekend. showers, slowly but surely, will ease. there will be some sunny spells, but the nights will be decidedly chilly. i'm rico hizon in singapore. the headlines: a new ballistic missile launch from north korea — flying overjapan and crashing down into the pacific ocean. questions for malaysia's islamic schools the day after a fire that
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killed 23 students and teachers in kuala lumpur. amnesty international says it has evidence of the army systematically torching rohingya villages in myanmar as refugees continue to flee the country. winds of 250 kilometres an hour as typhoon talim starts to lash southern japan.
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