Tributes were paid last week to playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the 1950s, who died aged 83. He was a prolific writer whose best known works included Chips with Everything (1962), based on his two years in the RAF. Born in London’s East End of Russian-Jewish parentage in 1932, he left school at fourteen, and his various attempts at earning a living, together with his Jewish family background, form the basic material of several of his plays. His trilogy Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking about Jerusalem, deal with the aspirations and disappointments of the left-wing Kahn family before and after World War II. From 1961-70 he was the artistic director of Centre 42, a cultural movement for popularizing the arts. Other plays include The Old Ones (1972) and The Merchant (1978). On his 70th birthday he wrote: ‘And though like most writers, I feel dying before I write that one masterpiece for which I’ll be remembered, yet I look at the long row of published work that I keep before me on my desk and I think, not bad, Wesker, not bad.’
In 1997 I published his book The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel under the Quartet imprint and later that year I interviewed him for my own book, In Conversation with Naim Attallah.I found him easy to talk to and rather congenial, despite his reputation for a difficult disposition. However, we had one thing in common. We both thought that women were superior creatures to men. Here’s the original interview:
You have often felt disappointed or angry with journalists who have interviewed you or written articles about you. The impression which I have after reading your autobiography is of a character so complex as to be almost impossible to be contained in an interview. Would you perhaps agree with that and sympathize with the difficulties?
The simple answer is yes. Journalism is a profession, people want to read about other people, and there is no way you can bypass it unless you become a recluse like Salinger or Garbo and you hit the headlines by virtue of not being there. I’m not that kind of person, and I also feel that I don’t quite have the right to refuse to be interviewed, though perhaps I might have been more discriminating in the past. The big problem is that all interviews attempt to encapsulate a life within a few thousand words and that’s an impossible task; and what is distressing for most of those interviewed is that there is no acknowledgement of this limitation. Each profile assumes it has captured the complexity of a lifetime. This is the crux of the matter. Many interviews are of course sympathetic, but even when they’re sympathetic they get it wrong. No one who has been interviewed ever believes that the journalist has got it right.
You say in your autobiography that the ‘angry young man’ label was just a journalistic misnomer and that in fact you were a happy young man. But happiness doesn’t make such good copy perhaps, and in any case you did quite well out of the anger – international fame, success, money and so on …
No, I don’t agree. I think it was a limitation, an anchor round my neck. The moment you have a label you can be easily dismissed. The fact that the plays happened and still happen are because they’re good plays, not because of anger and all that. Inevitably one is caught up in a movement, and again there is nothing one can do about it. One is helpless about a lot of life. If I had somehow lived and died within the space of ten years, then it might have been permissible to say that my existence depended upon having emerged under the label of angry young man. But the evidence is to the contrary; the plays are still being done. For example, the last play in my cycle of one-woman plays, called Letter to a Daughter, has its world premiere in South Korea. It then went to Portugal, Norway, Sweden, had a fantastic success in Italy, and is now scheduled for productions in Denmark, Greece and Spain, and this is without a production in London or New York. So there’s something about the quality of the plays that makes them travel and makes them last in my lifetime. Whether I will be forgotten when I’m dead, that’s another question.
You are still stuck with certain labels, no matter how inaccurate they are now: ‘working class hero’, ‘social activist’, ‘angry leftie’, and so on. You have felt badly served by these images over the years. Why do they matter so much?
They matter because they get in the way of understanding the plays. I think they also get in the way of people thinking about putting them on. There is no doubt that if you tell someone what it is they are going to see or read, that’s what they will see or read. So if Tom Stoppard gave me a play and I put it out under my name, everyone would see it as a play that was ‘oh, so obviously a play by Arnold Wesker’, simply because that is what they have been told. So these labels announce what the play is going to be about, and yet it’s never about that, never. The plays are much too complex for labels.
Some people say that one of the reasons that the angry-young-man image has endured is that you have remained angry … would you say that is true?
Anybody who feels strongly about something can communicate a sense of outrage, but it isn’t necessarily anger. I much prefer a play that bubbles with gaiety, though I also like intellectual stimulation. Anger just doesn’t mean anything, it just doesn’t mean anything.
You say you don’t believe that creativity comes from misery, and that you need to feel joyful to write – in which case your output over the years would seem to point to a great deal of joy, but there are presumably many other emotions in the mix. Is it not rather the tension between the different emotions which makes you creative?
I happen to be of what’s generally called a happy disposition. My instinct is to forgive, to forget, to look for the best in people, and that provides a kind of peace. When there is hostility, I seize up. If I’m directing a play and actors behave in a vicious way, I cease to function. I don’t have to be in a permanent state of gaiety but I do need to be at peace and feel surrounded by positive vibes. There’s no such thing as optimistic or pessimistic art; what finally counts is that which is honest and of a very high level. What’s distressing and really makes one feel pessimistic is mediocrity. For example, I wrote about the death of my mother, which was very distressing to me because I adored her, but there was something about discovering a way of communicating death that was in itself invigorating.
Your childhood in the East End of London was fertile ground for a writer and provided you with your first success Chicken Soup with Barley. You distinguish between being romantic about the past and being sentimental, which you describe as essentially dishonest. Isn’t it true however that the very process of remembering will distort – you will remember differently from your sister, for example?
Yes there is nothing you can do about that – that’s the trick of memory. My sister will remember things differently, not only because of the way memory works, but because she was eight years older than me and really took the brunt of my parents’ quarrelling at its height. She was constantly protecting me from it. But my memory of those days is of a happy childhood, of lots of love and the things relatives did for one another. I didn’t write out of misery. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any bad. I’m conscious of the quarrelling and of the poverty, but on balance my sense of the past is that it was happy, it was a good family.
How much do you think this sense of the past came from the feeling of belonging to an extended family?
That was very important. It was a family full of my mother’s brothers and my father’s sisters and I was embraced by everyone – my sister and brother-in-law, my parents and all the aunts and uncles.
How important was it that you grew up in the Jewish community and all that that entailed?
I’m not sure how to answer that, because that was my milieu and everybody’s milieu is important to them, whether positively or negatively. I happen to have been able to draw from my background. Although I quarrelled with my mother and I got angry with my father, I have a memory of not reacting against them because they were my parents. There are two processes that can happen with young people: one is to rebel against the family, and the other is to respond to what is ahead. I was able to do the latter. There were lots of Jewish kids who found there background over powering and were really shattered by it; I found mine very rich. My aunts and uncles read books and they were full of opinions and ideas. They handed down this appetite for learning and literature, so what I am left with is on balance a sense of things positive.
You say now that you have a profound sense of Jewishness without a need to promote the Jewish culture or indeed to live the Jewish faith. How would you describe this sense of Jewishness – does it necessarily amount to much more than, say, a sense of being English?
It’s complex. It’s something Jewish writers constantly get together and talk about. Many of us are very conscious of being absolutely Jewish, without necessarily having to believe in God or pursuing any rituals or being steeped in Jewish culture. Perhaps you remember that part of my autobiography where I talk about what I regard as the two routes to Judaism. One is the belief that human beings, because they were created by God, are very important; the other believes that because human beings were created by God, God is therefore more important. Those who believe that God is more important are the religious ones, and those who believe that human beings are more important are the doctors and the writers and the composers and so on. Of course I belong to that category which has a great reverence for the importance of life and what human beings can produce. Naturally one is depressed and distressed by the awful things that human beings do, but we do seem to have a capacity to do the kind of things which make human beings extraordinary. It would be absurd this is exclusively Jewish, but it is very essentially Jewish.
But why essentially did you reject the orthodox beliefs – was it chiefly a question of reason prevailing, or what?
There was no tradition of it in my family. My parents simply weren’t religious, so it wasn’t there for me to reject or otherwise. They were both members of the Communist party.
Is the Age of Reason one of your guiding principles when you write?
No, I consider myself to belong to the rational humanists, but I don’t sit down with the intention of writing accordingly. I am a mixture – an emotional, thinking, feeling person, with varying degrees of honesty and dishonesty, and varying levels of perceptiveness or stupidity.
What would you say your main weakness is?
You mean apart from women?
Yes, we’ll come to that …
It’s not so much a weakness as something that’s missing. I feel very much the lack of an in-depth education. I didn’t go to university, and though I read widely, there are huge gaps in my knowledge which I feel very acutely. I’ve always turned down invitation to debate at Oxford or Cambridge because I know I can’t think on my feet and I don’t have the capacity to marshal facts. Another weakness is that I’m not always as honest as I would like to be, but I think I’m sufficiently honest with myself. There are always scraps of paper where I write down what I understand to be the truth of what’s happened.
Your mother was an extremely important figure in your life and in your writing – indeed most of your characters are women. Are women just more interesting, do you think? Do they offer more creative possibilities?
I seem to find women more interesting than men, for all sorts of obvious reasons and also in terms of writing. I know the flaws and the weaknesses and the setbacks that one has with women in relationships, so I don’t see them through rosy glasses, but on the other hand they seem to me more courageous, more perceptive, more vivacious than men. Men are incredibly dull – in fact, I never understand what women see in men. I’m sometimes told that I understand women extremely well, but it’s not that so much as the fact that I listen to them and they’re so vivid about themselves. Women talk, men don’t. I love to hear women talking about themselves, and that’s how I recreate them.
I read somewhere that you think women are in fact superior to men, and that male aggression is a recognition of this fact and an attempt to compensate. Is that a serious theory?
I think at a certain level it’s serious. A woman has an innate understanding of most situations, especially those involving relationships. They understand what’s happening, whereas men seem not to understand. The other observation – not original to me – is that women have the power to give and withdraw happiness. I think men know this, and it unnerves them. Women need happiness and they need a sexual life, but they seem able to hold back until it’s right for them, and men sense this, and feel very helpless in front of it. So the brutal men use their fists, and the verbal men insult.
In the 1960s you were the artistic director of Centre 42, a cultural movement for popularizing the arts. This has been something of an albatross round your neck since it had the effect of identifying your own plays with social causes. Has this been a terrible frustration for you?
Yes, in much the same way as the labels ‘angry young man’ and ‘kitchen sink’ have been frustrating, because they have prevented people from seeing the full spectrum of what I’ve done. I don’t regret Centre 42; it was a project which had a short life but a very large impact on the cultural life of the country. It seems to have given courage and released imaginations so that people went on to do other things. In the end I failed to make it work, essentially by failing to raise the kind of money that I believed the project needed. There had been a tendency among other such artists and intellectuals to believe that if you try to take the arts to a popular audience then they don’t have to be of such a high standard – if your heart’s in the right place, that somehow will be enough. I had seen that attitude operate and fail, and I was determined that with Centre 42 we should aim for the highest standards possible. We found the Round House at Chalk Farm, and I tried unsuccessfully to raise £650,000. Very simply that is what happened.
You’ve consistently denied that you yourself were working class which you insist is a state of mind. By calling it a state of mind don’t you perhaps detract from the experience of a great many people who lived the lives of the working class, not at a psychological level but at the level of actuality?
I would modify what I said then by suggesting that it is a collection of states of mind. There are certainly different kinds of working class. Just at a very simple level, sections of the Welsh mining working class had a passion for literature and music and had libraries in their homes. That’s one kind of working-class tradition that’s very strong, not only in Wales, but in Scotland, in the Midlands and elsewhere. There are bastions of working-class people who did care about education and intellectual life. Equally there was another section which didn’t care, and they wanted their kids to be plumbers and butchers and had no special interest in education. That was the state of mind that said, we are who we are, we’re very proud of who we are, and we don’t want to have anything to do with theatres and all that arty-farty nonsense, we’re happy with our pints of beer and our games of darts. So when I talk about the working class as a state of mind I mean that it can be identified as believing that you live your life in a certain way and have absolutely no other horizons.
Do you think your own plays were true to the principles of Centre 42? I mean, they are essentially popular, accessible plays, would you say?
A distinction must be drawn here. Centre 42 was not set up to create popular art, it was set up to popularize art – a very important difference. What I wanted to do was make available to a wider audience the best of the classics, as well as the best of what was being produced at the time; not to create what people described as working-class culture – I didn’t know what that was. As regards my own plays, some are more accessible than others. As you grow alder you set yourself more difficult challenges artistically. So my recent play When God Wanted a Son is not a play to which a popular audience would respond so much as they might to a play like Roots, but it is important to observe that the audience for the arts has always been, and probably will always be, a minority audience.
The so-called wilderness years were obviously extremely painful for you. What made you keep the faith?
One reason is that I didn’t have any alternative, the other is that the wilderness didn’t extend to the rest of the world. The world is a very big place, and I was constantly invited abroad for the first nights of productions of my plays in other countries. I managed to bounce back and write new work – something which irritates my critics, but I’m a compulsive writer and there’s still a great deal that I want to write.
Why do you think there has been a lack of interest in Britain compared to abroad? Are the reasons very complex?
The first thing to be said is that you have to get the lack of interest in perspective. I have complained rather more vociferously than the reality perhaps warranted, for there has always been something happening in England, whether it’s been the publication of a collection of essays, or the performance of a new play, or the revival of an old one. What began the distress was that at a certain moment in my career, when I was aged forty, I had two plays which were going to be put on in the two big theatres, the National Theatre and the Royal Court, and for various reasons they just didn’t happen. The Old Ones was bought by the National Theatre and was to be directed by John Dexter, who had directed my first five plays. Dexter then went on holiday, and when people go on holiday the coups take place. Kenneth Tynan just threw it out of the programme, and I was very angry, particularly because the contract had already been signed. A few months later the actors refused to perform my play called The Journalists which had been bought by the Royal Shakespeare Company and announced as part of their programme. I had sold the rights to three countries who had been told by the Royal Shakespeare Company not to do the play before they had performed the premiere. And yet in the event the RSC sided with the actors, and so the play was never performed. I sued the RSC, a process which took eight years and didn’t do much for my reputation in this country.
Why did the actors refuse to perform the play?
We will never really know the truth. What we do know is that it had never happened before and it’s never happened since. The RSC in their evidence submitted written statements from the actors which said various things, such as ‘we don’t think this play can work technically’ and one actor even said: ‘Wesker needs his knuckles rapped,’ which was extraordinary. My own theory is that at that time, the early 1970s, the actors were under the influence of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. In my play there were four Tory cabinet ministers whom I had made very intelligent, on the assumption that if you’re going to criticize anybody it’s better not to make them idiots who are easy to knock down. Actors do not have the most subtle political minds, and they simply didn’t understand the play and thought it was very right wing. In fact I have never been a member of a political party and it is very hard to pin me down politically.
There is a sense in which you seem to have clung to the conspiracy theory with regard to your plays being performed. Isn’t it just as likely that the theatre – like other art forms – is subject to changing trends and fashions, and one minute you can be acclaimed and the next you can be cast out into the wilderness. Isn’t this an old, old story?
I suppose it could be that the reason they don’t do the plays is that the plays aren’t any good. This has at least to be considered as a possibility. Obviously I think they are wonderful plays, but I may be wrong. And as you say, fashions change, tastes change, young directors come who want to find their own playwrights … so there are all sorts of reasons. Together they make it very hard to stay afloat.
Over the years you have had problems with the directors of your plays and you seem to feel almost as if they were violating what you created … were you ever able to see this relationship as a partnership? Isn’t directing a play also a creative activity?
No, I don’t think it’s a creative activity; it’s an organizational one. Rather it’s an organizational one which requires sensitivity and imagination, but it’s not a creative one. Essentially God is the one and only creative person since He started from nothing; writers don’t entirely start from nothing because we use our experience of life, which makes us recreators, if one wants to be very precise. But let’s accept the generally used description that we are creative because we start with raw experience, and we make order out of something that is essentially in a state of chaos. What the director is handling is something that has already been put in order, and for that reason he can’t really be described as creative. I discussed this precise question in my Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture in 1987 which, if you’ll permit me, I’ll quote from: ‘The raw material of the playwright is the individual experience of life. This experience is a kind of chaos into which occasionally there shines a light, a tiny light of meaning. A small part of the chaos is identified, sometimes comprehended. The playwright gives this comprehended chaos a shape, an order. He calls it a play. And like a scholar he is handling what are called primary sources which no one else has explored. Those primary sources are his own being and experience for which an original quality of imagination and a kind of courage is called upon, because he is going where no one dared to go before. The metamorphosis which seems to be taking place in the theatre is this: the director is usurping the play as his primary source, as his raw material to do with it as he fancies. The playwright endures the life and from it shapes a play; the director often rapes it.’ Having said that, I have had very good relationships with directors, but tensions inevitably grow after a time. What concerns me most is when I go to see a production of one of my plays and discover that the director has imposed something that is not there in my work. That’s when the difficulties arise.
Is it only with a living playwright that these problems exist? I mean, presumably you don’t object to widely different stagings of Shakespearean plays? And in the case of opera the public expect to see a different interpretation each time …
Yes, it really is a very complex area. The trouble is that I am not sure that interpretation is what happens when a director is directing something. What worries me is when there is an imposition which then becomes not the freedom of interpretation but a tyrannical treatment of something. The director is in effect saying, ‘I don’t want you to see this work as it might be, but as I see it.’ This is a terrible form of dictatorship.
Can you summarize what you are trying to achieve in a play? Is it more than entertainment? Are you trying to influence the way people think and behave?
I don’t think on those levels at all. What I think I’m doing is understanding the material that has prompted the play, and getting from that material something that is more than itself. One of the first things I advise young writers to try is to make a distinction between material that is anecdotal and material which is what I call resonant. For example, you might think that something said at a dinner table is very lively and would make a good story, but actually it doesn’t because it’s only an anecdote. What makes material rich is when you have selected that which has become more than the material itself, so that it ripples out. This is what I like to think I’m doing; identifying the material of my experience which might resonate outwards.
You have said that when you compare the intellectual experience to the theatrical one, it is like moving from the adult world to the kindergarten. Does that imply that the theatre is not a sufficiently weighty medium to carry your intellectual message?
I don’t deal in intellectual messages. I am inspired by people who are animated by ideas to such an extent that it shapes what they do with their personal lives. I’m also interested in people who are complex emotional creatures. What I said applies to my experience of going to the theatre. Frequently it’s infantile; you find characters who are limited in their literacy and their articulation, in their capacity to feel at any profound level – it’s what I call street-corner experiences. Occasionally of course one goes to the theatre and finds an adult experience, not simply intellectually but emotionally as well.
You once said that any bitterness or sadness as a playwright comes from the feeling of not being trusted, or having to struggle against the odds to get your plays performed when you know that they are good and that they work. Have you ever thought there might be easier ways to earn a living?
[Laughter] Yes, but I’m not very good at anything else. There were times when I thought that I might have had a head for business but I was told by a friend that I would be absolutely useless with money.
You sued the Royal Shakespeare Company for loss of earnings and eventually settled out of court after a long legal wrangle. In retrospect do you wish you had channelled that energy into more creative things?
I’m ambivalent, just as I’m ambivalent about almost everything. It took up a lot of time, but writing letters to my lawyer and composing documents were part of a creative process and, more importantly, I continued to write plays and stories. What I am conscious of is that it was a very bad career move.
The traditional perception of the Jew which has become almost a caricature is of someone forever talking about the injustices of the world, verging on the victim mentality. Are you aware of that in yourself to any extent?
No, because I’ve never strongly felt myself to be a victim until recently when my plays were not accepted as I thought they ought to be. I suspect that there is a very un-English tone in the plays since I do feel very Jewish, and I believe that there is a resistance to this quality in the work. In fact one director is reported to have said that the problem with my writing is that I am too Jewish, which is something which would never have been said about an Irish or a Scottish writer.
But if that were the case, your plays would surely be very successful in New York …
When they have got there, they have been very successful, but the problem is that New York puts on what has been successful in London.
Some years ago you wrote in defence of Salman Rushdie and what you called his basic right to blaspheme. In your own play Shylock, a character suggests that Abraham invented God, which surely offends more than one religion … can you explain first of all why it is alright to blaspheme?
It is impossible to hold views which don’t offend someone somewhere sooner or later, and since it is impossible it is crazy to try to prevent it. There are some who find a belief in God as offensive as those who believe in God find it offensive that others don’t. It is possible to argue that religious faith is an offence to one’s intelligence; it’s even possible to argue that to be accused of blasphemy by denying God is offensive.
Would you always defend people’s right to be offensive towards you?
It’s a very difficult area. There is a part of me which says that if someone wants to call me a dirty Yid they should be allowed to. What upsets me more is the existence of that mentality, which manifests itself in all sorts of other ways. It walks the streets drunk, shouting fuck you, fuck you. I find all that distressing, not because of the language, but because of the mentality. What must be prevented, of course, is people acting on their beliefs; the idea that the Jew is terrible so you slaughter him, that the infidel is awful so you slaughter him.
Now that there is something of a revival of your plays, would you say you were now through the wilderness and heading towards the Promised Land?
No. I don’t believe you’re ever there until you’re dead. Unless my play gets good reviews, unless the one I’ve just finished takes off, unless a number of other projects are successful financially, and give me the security I’ve never really had, unless I’m able to create what we call in the profession my ‘fuck-you fund’, I will never feel that I’m out of the wilderness.
You say in your autobiography that your marriage would amount to another book in itself, and one can see why … the relationship has been so much part of your life and so complex that it must be very difficult to talk about it in a few sentences. What I wonder is, has the marriage survived the period of separation in any recognizable form?
Yes … it seems to me that two interesting things have happened. The most important is that Dusty has created a very individual life for herself in this house; she is queen of the roost, and she has a circle of adoring, admiring friends, and she no longer perceives herself as my shadow, though I believe she always made an impact in her own right. I was never competitive, but that is how she perceived it, and now that there is a sort of living together separately she feels much more confident. I don’t think she’s entirely happy with the situation, but I think we’re moving towards a truly interesting relationship.
At the time of falling in love with someone else, you said that you had not fallen out of love with Dusty. Was that a way of making it more acceptable or presentable to other people, perhaps even to yourself?
It’s possible. I mean, we all play tricks with ourselves, and I’m in no position to argue one way or another. All I would say is that I was conscious of a very rich relationship, not perfect, because nothing is perfect, but we had a great rhythm, which is why we’re able to enter into a rhythm now.
Right at the beginning, nearly forty years ago, you felt troubled and confused by your relationship with Dusty and worried about your future together. You wrote to her then: ‘if it does not end now it will become more complicated and worsen. I see that so clearly that it is almost a vision.’ Was there any sense of that being a self-fulfilling prophecy?
God knows. I think I saw a great deal that was right, but there were other things that I didn’t see, such as the way in which she would grow and blossom into something very striking and individual – although I did detect something. What I was referring to was more what I recognized about myself, my needs, my inability to make the relationship work, rather than hers. And I suppose I also made a mistake about what I was capable of making work.
You mentioned your weakness for women. What did you mean by that?
Well, I love their company. I don’t pursue them at any great level … for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because it just hurts everybody, so it’s very limiting. The desire remains, and you have to find a way of living with that, and yes, given a different situation, I would explore all sorts of relationships.
The relationship with your eldest son was perhaps the main casualty of the break-up. Indeed, intimate parts of your autobiography are addressed to him. You say at one point: ‘it causes me great heartache but, more, I fear for you, that when I’m dead you will grieve with a deep guilt.’ Wasn’t that quite a burden to lay at the door of your son?
Yes, but I didn’t realize that he would respond by refusing to talk to me – that came as a great shock. To that extent he succeeded in breaking something up, and bringing Dusty and me together again. I don’t know whether he was the greatest casualty … he was the one who didn’t talk to me; the other two did, but they were affected as well. This is an area that I don’t want to get into in too much detail.
Yes, but don’t you think we should do everything possible to remove guilt, not to perpetuate it …
Yes, that’s why I urged him to sustain the relationship with me. My mother always used to say, don’t shout at me, because you’ll feel guilty about it when I’m gone. And she was right – one regrets all the wrong things one did to one’s parents.
You’re very conscious of the shifting states of mind which we all experience. Your autobiography was written at a particular time of your life when you were experiencing separation, loss and presumably guilt. How would you describe your state of mind at present?
A little more at peace but still in a great mess. The last three or four years really splintered me apart, and the pieces are still floating in space. I’m not sure I’m going to get them all together again. I think I’m going to stay in a sort of shattered state in orbit until I die. If I were to strike a gold mine with one of my projects then all sorts of things would follow from that. I could begin to help my grandchildren with their education for example, which would give me great pleasure, I could try to rectify the damage done to my daughter by helping her financially. It would also enable Dusty and me to find a way of doing many things together which we can’t do because of financial straits, so if I struck it lucky then some more bits might come together. But emotionally I will always be all over the place now.
Would you say you’re a good father?
I think I am. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life which has affected the children but I’ve always been around for them. My big mistake was education. I foolishly thought that because they came from a very privileged background, by which I mean they had exposure to very interesting people, it should therefore be balanced by education in a comprehensive school. That was a mistake.
Let me move to a more delicate matter. As a Palestinian I can probably be forgiven for taking a rather different view of the rights and wrongs of Zionism and what happened in 1947. Wouldn’t you at least allow that in the great dream of building Israel and making that a reality there were many casualties …?
Oh God, yes of course. My own view – a view held by many people – is that there were two rights in the conflict. The problem was presented to the wise men and women in the world in the shape of the United Nations, and they came out with the solution of partition, and as I understand it the Jews accepted partition and the right of the Palestinians to have a homeland. As I remember it the map favoured the Palestinians more than the Jews, who were given the arid lands, but the Palestinians didn’t want to accept that the other side had a right. They were under the influence of medieval Arab states who disapproved of the Jewish presence with its democratic values and egalitarian views. The fact that men and women lived together in kibbutzim and walked around in shorts was an affront to their medieval state of mind, and so they mistakenly encouraged the Palestinians to go to war. Some years ago a Palestinian writer observed that if they had accepted partition they would have had more than they are now fighting for. That seems to me to have been the beginning of the tragedy. Tragedies don’t bring out the best in people and this one certainly didn’t bring out the best in the Israelis any more than it did on the other side.
In your youth you were a member of Habonism, a Zionist organization for young people, which presumably shaped your views. Did you ever think that this might have been an impediment to impartial, independent thinking? I mean, all religious organizations can foster prejudices to some extent …
Yes, except it wasn’t a religious organization. It was an organization of people who simply shared the view that there should be a Jewish state and it wanted to encourage young people to go and live and work in that state. Even from the beginning we were all very conscious of Palestinian rights so that when partition was announces there was no protest; indeed we embraced it and said, thank God, this is a solution. To that extent it wasn’t an impediment and I haven’t changed my views very much since then. I’ve always believed there should have been a Palestinian state.
By parodying the PLO in your book, in what you call your ‘fantastic scenario’ don’t you take tremendous liberties with the facts? Isn’t it rather like indentifying Catholic Ireland with the IRA?
Not quite, because I happen to have met many Palestinians who were not members of the PLO and I have had a rapport with them, so I hope I don’t fall for caricatures or stereotypes. No, this was a very mischievous, cheeky scenario which I invented because it seemed such an absurd thing to equate Zionism with racism.
It depends what form of Zionism … I mean, some Zionists want to go beyond the shores of Israel, to reclaim the old Biblical kingdom of Israel …
I don’t share that view at all, but I don’t know that it’s racist – which is not to say that there are no racists within the Jewish community. There has been new research into African, Asian and Jewish communities in this country and an enormous amount of racism has been discovered: the Asians won’t let their children marry Africans, the Africans don’t want their children to marry Jews, the Jews don’t want their children to marry outside the faith, and so at that level racism exists. But if you take the best of Jewish and Zionist thinkers, the most rational of them, the evidence is that the Peace Now movement was a very strong force in Israel. There is no Peace Now movement among Palestinians.
Yes, but don’t forget the Israelis murdered their own prime minister because he was making the peace accord, so there are two sides to the story …
That’s absolutely true, it’s shattering, and one is very ashamed of those crazy extremist Jews. But the Peace Now movement still exists.
I read somewhere that you believe friendship and love have to be earned. Can you expand on that?
Again, I’m ambivalent about it. I suppose I’m thinking of how it happens in the States, where friendships are made immediately and people call you by your first name and they’re all over you; it’s not the same in England, and I have a certain respect for this difficulty of getting close to the English. Sometimes it’s to do with coldness and aloofness and a mistrust of the foreigner, but part of it is to do with more having to happen before the relationship can be described as friendship. The other thing is that I’m not very good at judging people. My relationships always begin at one hundred per cent and then they can only ever decrease. I start off trusting most people and believing that their intentions are honourable; it’s only after learning more about them that you can really judge. In that way you earn love and friendship by getting to know more about them and by giving to them, and of course they also give to you. There are those people who just give nothing, so they don’t earn friendship. I also believe that in art the tears and the laughter have to be earned.
At the end of Chicken Soup with Barley Ronnie Kahn’s mother shouts at him: ‘If you don’t care you’ll die!’ could that be your own epitaph?
No. I’ve actually written my epitaph which will go on a stone up a hill behind a house in Wales. It will say something like, ‘Come to this spot to remember him and enjoy what he loved.’ I want people to make a pilgrimage to this place and see the beautiful panorama.
Do you see yourself as a prophet in your own country? Do you have that image of yourself?
No. I see myself in very traditional ways, as belonging to the mainstream of world drama. What I am doing can be simply described: it is the task of trying to create a little bit of order out of the chaos of my experience. There is chaos all around us and art seeks to gather it together and illuminate. That is my function.