You know what they say about first novels. That they’re the ones where you reflect on your own life, where you try to sum up what’s different about it and what everyone else gets wrong about it, where you try to nail down a few hard-won home truths under the benign pretence of fiction.
Well, in James Naughtie’s case, all those people are wrong. Because his first novel, The Madness of July, is about a government minister in the 1970s who also happens to be a spy. And the one thing I know about James Naughtie, masterfully orotund interrogator on Radio 4’s Today programme and Good Morning Scotland, knowledgeable presenter of operas on Radio 3, book festival stalwart, all-round man of letters, former chair of the Man Booker Prize judges and presenter of Radio 4’s Book Club, is that working on Her Majesty’s Secret Service has never figured on his CV.
I could, of course, be mistaken. Perhaps somewhere along the line from head boy at Keith Grammar School to chief political correspondent of The Scotsman and the Guardian, the young Naughtie was indeed tapped up by MI6. Maybe he already received instruction in how to strip down a Walther PPK or send coded messages while pursuing his “cover” job reporting on the Arab Spring from Tahir Square or on the inner workings of the Democratic Party machine in the US.
For the moment, though, let’s assume that the 62-year-old broadcaster isn’t a brilliantly disguised spy. He knows a few of them all right – more of that later – but then he seems to know everyone – or at least everyone who counts in politics, the media, and the worlds of books and classical music.
But I’ve read my le Carré, and I know that the right way to begin any interrogation is to question the absence of the obvious. The main appeal of The Madness of July, for example, lies in its insider’s account of a political crisis, there are detailed and loving descriptions of the Highland estate on which its protagonist, the cabinet minister (and former spy) Will Flemyng grew up, a key scene at an opera, and a credibly drawn New York. So – politics, Scotland, classical music, America: if first novels really are thinly veiled autobiographies, that’s four big ticks for things that matter in Naughtie’s own life right there. But surely there’s something missing? In a plot that begins with the murder of an American spook in the Houses of Parliament, we don’t have a single journalist sniffing away at the story. Why not?
Fiction generally gets journalists wrong, he replies. “The danger of having a cardboard cut-out reporter is so terrifying that it never occurred to me to do it. It’s almost always the same with politics. With very few exceptions – House of Cards was one of them – films about the House of Commons never quite ring true either.”
He didn’t want to write about party politics, he says, but to explore the inner tensions of political life. Because of that, he deliberately didn’t spell out to which political party Will Flemyng belongs. There’s no political message here, nor does Flemyng ever have to push a particular cause, and setting the novel in the Seventies is a further way of making the book a more abstract study of the political game – he uses that phrase a lot – and how failure is almost implicit in it.
“That’s why I have Flemyng describe politics as an exercise in fragility. You’re skating along, and all of a sudden, the world can change – and you’re out, you’re gone, you’re forgotten. From the highest to the lowest, and no matter how good you are at it, there’s a danger to it.”
In The Madness of July, the danger comes from the mission the murdered American spy had been trying to undertake. It’s a very complicated plot, and one that was suggested to him by a particularly well-placed British former spy. “I asked him what kind of problems hadn’t been properly dealt with in spy fiction. There is one, he said, particularly in Europe, where allies are supposed to be operating together, yet find themselves with competing interests at the same time.
“That struck a chord, because there’s the same duality in politics itself, where one might be on the same side and yet one is also competing. And so in the book we have two brothers, one American and one British, yet both in the secret service – and you have this strange working out of where loyalty ends and rivalry begins.”
Naughtie first told me he was writing a novel three years ago at the Borders Book Festival. There, I first heard him hold the main tent spellbound by talking about Obama’s campaign to win the US presidency. He talked for about 45 minutes without notes, in that soft, mellifluous Moray accent that all those years in London never blunted, in his rather high style of billowing sentences laden with sub-clauses (like this, but longer) that has pushed him to the cusp of national treasure status with the millions of people who, like me, wake up with his voice in our ears. He was, in short, brilliant.
So it feels slightly strange to hear him talking about British politics of the Seventies in precisely the same way, even though it’s just me and not an audience of 500. I’d asked him about how he first got interested in politics, and out the answer rolled, with the familiar Naughtie cadences, about his first days in the House of Commons, the long crises of the Seventies, the older generation of politicians who had all fought in the war and had different jobs before going into politics, the way in which everything led up to the fall of the Labour government on the last day of March, 1979 over the repeal of the Scotland Act.
He half closes his eyes and sighs at the memory. “Ayes to the right 311, nos to the left 310. To be in the chamber that night, when no-one knew what the result was going to be, when people were being brought in on stretchers to vote, when the devolution story was reaching its climax... it wasn’t just the drama and the theatricality of it that it was difficult not to be intoxicated by; it was the sense of things being at stake and of you having a purpose.”
You having a purpose. So far in this interview, I notice, that’s the nearest he has come to talking directly about himself – and he still hasn’t reached for the first person singular. And I think back to the times I’ve heard him speak in public about politics, about Blair and Brown, about the coalition, and I realise that he seldom does. One of the reasons he didn’t want to put a journalist in his novels, I realise, must be some reserve about writing himself into the story.
“I am gregarious by nature,” he says. Then he stops himself. “I AM gregarious. I enjoy company, good nights. But I’m also quite a private person, more than some people might realise. And that’s why I describe Flemyng – with whom I’ve got almost nothing else in common, as “the cat who walks alone”.
Having a purpose, to Naughtie, doesn’t mean being the story, but it does mean being where the story is. He learnt that from the very best. From Arnold Kemp, deputy editor of The Scotsman (“a man I adored”) who came up to Aberdeen in 1977 when Naughtie was in his second year of his traineeship with the Press and Journal and lured him down to work as a reporter in London (and, memorably, to report on his adventures with Ally’s Army in Argentina the following year). From the great James Cameron, Scottish foreign correspondent par excellence, whom he’d interviewed earlier that same year, and whose sheer urbanity inspired a whole generation to go into journalism.
At this point the die has been cast. The young trainee journalist who sat down for a single malt or two with the late, great James Cameron in his Hampstead home and heard him talk – generously, and without a hint of being patronising – about the bars all the way round the world where the lost tribe of hacks would gather to swap stories, was already hooked on his trade. His progress was meteoric; first as The Scotsman’s chief political correspondent, then, in 1984, taking the same job at the Guardian, immersing himself in the Westminster world.
If a lot of the conversations in the novel are heavily elliptical, careful not to reveal too much, that reflects the world he found himself in. “Tuning into how politicians talk, to the way they fish for information, to their loaded questions, seeing how they feel each other out, is important. Because the most interesting politicians all have a good ear, they can pick up on things, like a boxer noticing an opening or a chess player seeing something happening on the board. And that kind of conversation is one of the things that interests me about politics.”
Sometimes – rarely – the veils lifted. “I remember the night of the Westland crisis, when Heseltine resigned. Like everyone else, I’d put a phone call to his home and left a message on his Ansaphone, and then forgot about it. That day I’d probably written about three whole pages of the newspaper because Malcolm Rifkind had gone to the Scottish Office and George Younger had gone to replace Heseltine at defence, and I knew them, so I had all these page leads. Anyway, I was sitting back in my flat in Battersea – I wasn’t married then – and the phone went. I had the head cans on, I was listening to some opera or other. I nearly missed the call. It was Heseltine. I said, ‘Oh, you’ve had an interesting day.’ And we talked for three-quarters of an hour.”
Two years later, he married Eleanor Updale, his producer at The World at One and now a highly regarded children’s writer. Another two years on, Mrs Thatcher resigned. “We were doing an hour-long live programme at 6pm, and we had John Major, Douglas Hurd, and Michael Heseltine who were all candidates to succeed her. And someone said, right at the end, ‘You’ve got the two minutes coming up to 7pm – just sum up the Thatcher years.’ There’s no time for notes. So you’re trembling, trying to find words for two minutes in which you can say something about the era to which she gave her name coming to an end.”
Radio, to Naughtie, was just the continuation of print journalism by other means. “I really enjoy explaining to people what it’s like to be somewhere, to take them there, to be able to describe what was happening and the texture of it, and the importance of it. Just being able to say what it was like being in Denver with 90,000 people the moment Obama accepted the nomination, and watching him coming up through the Carolinas, the old slave states, for goodness sake. When I first visited Washington, it was only five years previously that if you had come on a train to Union Station, and that train was continuing into Virginia, it was emptied and all the blacks were put into the back of the train. And to be able to describe all that … There’s no point disguising it – it’s an exciting thing to do.”
So what’s the key question to ask a natural born interviewer? Maybe you ask him the one everyone else surely must. All the strangers on planes and trains. All the spies, the musicians, the writers, the hacks, the politicians, the students and academics at Stirling University (where he has been chancellor since 2008), all the people he bumps into at parties. The one James Cameron and Arnold Kemp would probably ask, were they still among us. You can guess what it is.
“It was in 1999 after Le Pen got into the last round of the French presidential election and the run-off was between him and Chirac. And I was with a colleague and we thought ‘Who’s the best-known fascist in France?’ And we realised Diana Mosley was still alive, so we rang her up and I went alone to her flat in Paris with my little tape recorder.
“She was 90, but she looked like Lauren Bacall, she’d got the whole Mitford aura – everything. And I asked her what her husband Oswald Mosley – whom the family for some reason called Tom – would have thought about Le Pen. She said, ‘Oh Tom would have hated Le Pen’ and I said ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, because Le Pen is anti-Europe. And Tom was always in favour of a united Europe….’ Which got us to the war, of course.
“Anyway, I thought to myself, here is a woman whose sister was Hitler’s girlfriend, and so I turned to her and said: ‘Lady Mosley, what would you say if Hitler walked into this room now?’
“And she paused. And she turned to me with her big, blue eyes. And she said [Naughtie puts on a cut-glass English accent] ‘Oh, I would say, how very nice to see you!’
“It’s moments like that that send a prickle up your spine. If you don’t feel it, you can’t respond to it, and you can’t tell anyone about it. But something like that, I’d travel halfway round the world to hear it said into a microphone.”
And at last I realise another reason that James Naughtie doesn’t think fiction has ever got journalists right. If he’s looking for a fictional journalist who’s anything remotely like him – well-read, unpretentious, not bowed down by cynicism, still in love with his job and fired up by new ideas and the game of politics, well of course there isn’t anyone. And in the big wide world beyond fiction, I reckon it’s the same story too.
• The Madness of July, by James Naughtie, is published this week by House of Zeus, £12.99.