But when a riot starts, it’s all off—the law suspended. It’s just the sort of thing that happens every now and then. Very hard to see any kind of social protest in it.
But it was an expression of class frustration to some degree, wasn’t it?
It’s not class anymore. It’s money. And for very good reason. Money is a much more fluid medium than class, and much more measurable, too, than class. It was a protest, if it was that, to any extent, against privation. It is the sort of society where—it’s not very rational—people look at fame and feel deprived if they haven’t got it, feeling that this is a basic, almost a human right—a civil right. And also feel the same way about wealth, I suppose—Why haven’t I got it? And plenty of people have got it who don’t deserve it. It’s as if it’s all up there for grabs, but it isn’t coming their way.
What do you think of London mayor Boris Johnson?
I met him once very briefly, in a TV studio, as his run for mayor was looking as though he might win. I’d just been on and was going, and he’d just come in and was going on and he was very nervous. And I said, “Boris, just be yourself.” And he said, “Oh, no, that’s over. No more of that.”
There’s John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, and Zadie Smith has a book coming out about Northwest London, and there’s your book. It does seem like there’s a bit of a wave of thinking about London in the post-crash years.
It’s really the postwar years, isn’t it? That’s how long it’s been going on. When the Big Three met in Yalta during the war—they weren’t the Big Three, they were the Big Two, plus Churchill. England was already ceasing to matter, even during the war.
That’s the big difference in feel between the places, London and New York. It doesn’t really matter what happens in London anymore, to the world. It is still a financial center, but politically, it just doesn’t matter. And that can’t be said of New York. You know, how often is there a piece about England in the New York Times? Well, Murdoch, but—
What do you think of that whole business?
They’re all mad about it, in England, like you followed Watergate. I kept on saying, What’s at stake? What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the most momentous thing that could happen?
Well, there’s something delectable about one of the most powerful men in the country being taken down by tabloid reporters spying on somebody’s voice-mails.
There’s a certain piquancy about that. But there’s not much riding on it. And as my friend Deborah Orr said, how they get the information is of interest—hacking and all that. But even if the information had been delivered by the stork, the fact that this is the kind of thing we’re interested in is in itself a condemnation. That it’s all on such a vulgar and intrusive level. Why is that appetite? I’ve thought for a long time the people are not like that. The English people are tolerant and cheerful, and they don’t want all this filth on well-known people. It was really brought home when Princess Diana died, and they were very hurriedly knocking up front pages of her as an angel—with wings, against a partly cloudy background, you know. While on page 20 they had a piece about, This bitch is fucking a Muslim.
Is the press more honorable here?
Much more. There isn’t what my father called the cruising hostility of the English press—where they’re looking around for something to attack. I think it must be to do with world-historical decline. Takes odd forms, and self-hatred is one of them.
Is that how you make sense of the interest of the English press in you?
I don’t understand it, and I’m tired of saying I don’t understand it, and I’m tired of saying I’m tired of saying I don’t understand it. But I don’t understand it.
For so long here, when people talked about you and your contemporaries in England, they’d marvel that writers were treated as celebrities there. But then Salman Rushdie comes here and he’s treated with similar attention. And people are very interested in your arrival. You’re celebrities, here, too.
But it’s a different tone, believe me. No comparison. My explanation for this is simply that America is a younger country than England, and as self-awareness was forming in America—are we a collection of immigrants, or are we a country with a soul and an identity?—there was a subliminal sense, they knew that the writers would be the ones who would answer those questions. So a sense of respect was accorded to them. Whereas in England you come under the heading of boffin and egghead. When the tabloids refer to scientists, it’s “boffins may have discovered a cure for this or that.” “White-haired old cunts,” “eccentrics”—that’s their view of brains. There’s a lot of anti-intellectualism in Britain. And the writer’s views on this or that are really of less importance, as they see it, than that of the man in the street. They’re thought of as indulged figures, who never had to do an honest day of work.