Robert Harris in his own words, with the assistance of his near contemporary and The Financial Times ‘literary editor’ Frederick Studemann

Headline: Robert Harris: ‘Johnson must fancy himself as Caesar’

Sub-headline: The novelist on Cicero’s lessons for Brexit Britain, Labour’s future — and how to write a bestseller a year

Reading Frederick Studemann’s interview with Robert Harris is a literary amalgam of quotes from Mr. Harris, wedded to workmanlike scene setting, and a running commentary by Mr. Studemann. It is both a pleasure to read, an evokes a world of Posh Boy privilege, in Harris’s case it was that of ability and good fortune. Mr. Harris describes himself  as “left liberal”. New Labour is/was Neo-Liberal, so the very notion of his self-ascription is what? mere political fancy, or worse?

On Boris’ victory:

“Every triumph has to be paid for,” he says, with a nod to his research on classical Rome. Johnson will now have to deliver. “Politics is just relentless . . . nothing ever ends. You get Brexit and then there’ll be an NHS winter crisis.”

On Labour’s political future:

“in quite a strong place in 2024 because the Tories won’t have their two great advantages — ‘get Brexit done’ and Jeremy Corbyn”…

Mr.  Studemann offers this-it can’t be called an interpolation, but is simply a part of Financial Times’ political ideology:

The difficulty will be getting the right new leader and reorientating the party, not easy with the hard left that now controls Labour and seems not actually that interested in winning elections.

Harris on his ‘evolution’ from the Working Class to a member of the ‘metropolitan media elite’

“It’s pretty distant,” he says. He left home at 18 to go to Cambridge and later joined the BBC and has ever since been “a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan media elite”.

Harris on Brexit/Remain political impasse:

… “In a way, what Remain people like me really wanted was a confirmatory vote. We just wanted for people to say, ‘Yes, we’ve looked at this, and this is what we want’,”
“might finally bring that postwar reckoning that we’ve never had about our status in the world”. …
“but we’ve traded a lot on past glories, some of which have fed into Brexit”.

On the political power of Roman demagogues:

“demagogues who are themselves very wealthy, powerful aristocrats, directing the anger of the population against the elite, against the Senate and Cicero, for their own political advantage”.*

Harris offer this evaluation of Johnson, via Mr. S,

“He’s, let’s say, flexible in his approach. I don’t think he is guided.”

This is self-explanatory:

“One of the things that I did learn from writing the Cicero books is the obvious one: that in every great victory lie the seeds of subsequent defeat.”

Harris opines on Decline, as viewed from his place of residence:

“Around here there were lots of big Roman villas. They were palaces really, but nobody knew how to work them once the Romans left.”
…“fascinates and haunts” him is that “one day the buildings of the City of London will topple and they won’t take long to decay, the roads will be grass and then trees and forests and then there will just be strange concrete blocks left around”.

Smartphones as indicative of the rise of  a’Technology’ divorced from human reality:

“It’s losing that tactile sense of being able in the end to make a shelter, cook a meal, not get something from delivery.”

Harris on his relation to Technology, cars:

“Good God, no. I can’t even mend a bicycle puncture,” he retorts. “I’m the original dreamy boy in his bedroom from the age of eight writing stories.”

Harris describes his life outside London’s metropolitan media elite:

“It’s been a great thing for me, not living in London, not going to launch parties, not being in all of that circuit. Just working quietly. Nobody reads reviews out here, nobody cares. That’s great.” His wife calls him a “sociable hermit”.

Harris on being a Writer of the 19th Century tradition

“It’s a profession, a job,” he says. “There’s a terrible preciousness about writing. I think that if you write, you’ve just got to get on and write.”

On the V2 rockets of WWII:


“I just find it extraordinary to think that one European country is occupying another, firing ballistic missiles at the capital city of another — within living memory.”

Harris on the Brexit  novel he would like to read by a Northern Leaver:

“writing against the prevailing liberal cultural authors”.

Harris on the Roman Republic:

“Look at the republic in Rome: Cicero, Cato, Caesar, Pompey — huge figures and what was the result?”
…“That was a system obsessed with politics and with geniuses in the senate and the result was a catastrophe.” Rome endured, but “the republic itself had gone. It became a kind of gangster empire.”

Harris on his children leaving home:

“It’s quite a shock when they move out,” he counsels, adding that it is something not written about enough. “It’s quite depressing because it’s a chapter close. You know that, let’s face it, the biggest chapter of your life has just come to an end . . . if it’s a novel, you’re now getting fewer pages.”

I have read Mr. Harris’ ‘Fatherland’, and found it good, but it does not compare with Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem.  ‘Pompeii’ was an enjoyable entertainment: both Graham Greene and Eric Ambler were the masters of that particular literary genre, played out within the world of crime, and espionage.  ‘The Ghost’ simply lost my interest. I read and enjoyed all three Arturo Perez-Reverte’s  novels ‘The Club Dumas’, ‘The Flanders Panel’ and ‘The Fencing Master’ each was published in the 1990’s, and were contemporaneous with Mr. Harris’ publications.

American Writer

*For a corrective to the ‘Cult of Cicero’ see Chapter 6 ‘Ethnic Personae’ of Ann Vasaly’s ‘Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory’ Its first sentence is instructive.

To paraphrase a cynical maxim of our own day , no Roman orator ever came to grief overestimating his audiences prejudices toward ethnic minorities.

Prof. Vasaly also provides a footnote that provides further information on the ethnic prejudices of Romans: ‘Romans and Aliens’ by J.P.V.D. Balsdon chapters 3, The Roman Outlook, 1. The Greeks and chapter 4‘The Roman Outlook’ 2. Other Peoples

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.