Jim Crace’s hypnotic prose and passionately gentle political agenda has fascinated me ever since I read The Pesthouse – a vivid tale of post-apocalyptic America – when I was thirteen, and went to hear him speak afterwards at a book-signing, where I plucked up all my courage to stutter out a slightly nonsensical question.
He made my day by dedicating my copy of the novel to the girl with ‘the smartest question in Cambridge’ – I hope I don’t disappoint him six years down the line.
‘It was June 1963, I was seventeen, and I guessed correctly I’d done badly in my A levels. I reckoned I could be like Jack Kerouac.’ Crace is explaining how he ended up taking what we students might nowadays call a ‘gap year’.
‘I’d wear a lumberjack shirt, smoke a lot of dope, knock out three weeks of “continuous bop prosody” and become a famous novelist before the summer was over. It didn’t happen.’ Instead, Crace returned to England, where he studied English Literature in Birmingham and ‘loved it.’
But the best-selling novels, Whitbread Awards and Man Booker shortlists were still many years away. Jim Crace has always been a stalwart socialist, and wanted to shake up the status quo. He worked for the VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) in Sudan and became a freelance journalist which he counts as ‘more important than fiction’. I ask him to explain.
‘When I spot people reading one of my novels, I can pretty accurately predict how they vote, what newspaper they read and how they feel about red meat. They are all versions of me. So what’s the point of preaching to them? They’re already on my side. But when I was a journalist, my articles would be seen by more than a million people every Sunday. Few of them were clones of me. Good journalism can make converts.’ So what should a young activist do to make a difference? ‘Take to the streets and not to the word processor… I want that to be true even if it isn’t.’
Journalism was also ‘a lot more fun – it dangled me from a helicopter over the Atlantic; it took me running with Daley Thompson; it lost me in the desert several times; it put me in the Ritz with a Bond Girl; it had me tip-toeing through land-mines in remote Cambodia… Plus, it taught me how to make every word count.’
There would have to be a really good reason to quit, and there was – a sinister dispute with the Sunday Times. ‘In 1986 I had a long story spiked for what the gossip columns called “quasi-political reasons” by the then-editor. It concerned the Broadwater Farm riots where PC Blakelock had been murdered the year before. I dug up some uncomfortable details about any number of prejudices.
My discoveries were subsequently vindicated – but too late to save the article (and too late to block the prejudices of the editor). As it happens, the spiking coincided with the sale in America of my first book, Continent. I could afford to be principled, so I left journalism.’
Crace’s novels retain his political convictions, albeit tacitly. Take his second book, The Gift of Stones, a political allegory for Thatcherite Britain but set in the Stone Age. I wonder if Crace’s latest novel, Harvest (shortlisted for the Man Booker and currently up for the Goldsmiths Award), is political too?
‘Yes, but subtly, hesitantly, furtively so. The message of the book is all smoke and mirrors. It’s not a placard or a slogan or a leaflet, though its subject matters – dispossession, xenophobia – would readily lead themselves to some sloganeering.’
The riveting novel revolves around an isolated village of farmers in medieval England, forced from their land to make way for sheep. The protagonist of Harvest shares Crace’s fascination with nature – I wonder if he is similar to him in any other ways.
‘None of the characters in my novels are self-portraits. My narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an uneducated man with great sensibilities and an ability to express himself well. Critics have said such a man could not display such narrative gifts. These are the same people who say a glove maker’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon with “small Latin and less Greek” could not have written the Shakespeare plays. It’s a class judgement and it’s snobbery. I used Walter to contest that attitude.’
I ask if Crace thinks Oxford should do more to contest the state/private school imbalance. ‘Personally, I’d like every fee-paying and selective school in the country to close because no-one any longer saw any benefit in them.’ Crace was opposed to the Man Booker opening its doors to American novelists, worrying the prize would lose its Commonwealth ‘focus’. So is an institution like Oxford valuable in upholding British tradition, or archaic?
‘Oxford University is certainly archaic. The past is replayed there every day. Traditions are rehearsed and upheld. But ruling class traditions aren’t the only ones in Britain. Ask yourself the question, is an institution like Oxford University valuable in upholding immigrant tradition, or working class tradition, or Northern tradition, or Socialist tradition, or (add to the list yourself) tradition – and the answer is clearly No. That is not a condemnation of OU (or not entirely); it is merely what you see reflected if you hold up a mirror to the place.’
My final question to Crace is why he has decided Harvest will be his last novel. His answer is typical of the man who has made time to be interviewed by a persistent fresher during the drama of two major award nominations: ‘Because I’d like to be more useful – for a while, at least.’