First things first: the Whitworth Hall was a splendid venue for tonight’s debate on literature and terrorism. It’s an elegant heap of neo-Gothic excess at the heart of Manchester university’s campus, with the proportions of a cathedral and an atmosphere to match. Our three speakers arranged themselves behind a narrow white-cloth-enrobed table that looked more than a little like an altar, while behind them soared a monstrous organ, evoking for me a bat in flight or the underbelly of some gothic stealth-bomber. With a near sell-out crowd of 500 in attendance, the scene was set for some serious debate.
And of seriousness there was plenty. Of debate, disappointingly, less so. Perhaps because the conversation cleaved so closely to the “terrorism” side of its remit, there was a remarkable degree of consensus on display, and only at the end did it spark into anything like mutual inquisition. Of the three speakers, in fact, only one was operating at a pitch excitable enough for engagement, and that was Maureen Freely, who appeared at several moments to be struggling to master near-overwhelming feelings and who gave what I felt was the most refreshingly direct perspective of the evening.
Literature, she explained in her initial segment, is too important to be side-tracked by bogus east/west divisions or partisan proscriptions (and she should know what she’s talking about, having had a close family member survive the collapse of one of the twin towers on 9/11, and having spent much of her life living and studying in Turkey). Instead, she offered a list of musts for those trying to write in the present: keep yourself informed, and keep on finding out more about your times; inform others wherever possible, and challenge distortions whenever you find them; reserve the right to write as you see fit, whether this be obliquely, unconventionally or not at all; and understand that those authors and intellectuals able to express themselves freely in free countries are to some extent speaking on behalf of those elsewhere who are unable to bear witness.
Martin Amis, needlessly to say, does this kind of event a lot, and while he is always an eloquent and sincere presence, the repetition (along with a few battle-scars) inevitably shows. Since 2001, he argued, Islamist terrorism has posed the world with an evolving moral question for which there are no truly definitive answers, but in the face of which…