Things are getting better—and worse. Photo: PA

Salman Rushdie: "When people stop believing in truth, demagogues come forward"

In this month's Brief Encounter, Salman Rushdie talks Brexit, Gramsci and why he's never finished Middlemarch
January 25, 2018
What is the first news or historical event you can recall?

After his ascent of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, Sherpa Tenzing came on a victory tour to Bombay. I remember going with my parents to watch him drive by in the back of an open convertible, waving at the crowds.

What is the book you’re most embarrassed to have never read?

I’ve never finished Middlemarch—it’s a slog for me. I even tried watching the very good BBC adaptation of it and I didn’t get through that. It’s not a problem with George Eliot; I can see her genius. It’s some problem of mine.

What is favourite saying or quotation?

Recently I’ve found the famous saying of the old Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, coming to mind a lot: “Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.”

The best and worst presents you have ever received?

Can I have two best presents instead? When I was born, one of my father’s closest friends gave me a little block of silver on which was engraved an un-partitioned map of India. I keep it very close to me and it’s a really beautiful and powerful object. Also the writer Pauline Melville gave me a ceramic Midnight’s Children and a ceramic Moor’s Last Sigh.

What do you most regret?

I don’t really go in for regret, because I try to look forwards rather than backwards. But my first novel, Grimus, is something that I do slightly regret. Re-reading it, I feel the writer hasn’t fully discovered his voice. There will be a page or so where I feel like this is okay, and there will be five pages where I feel this is dreadfully embarrassing.

The last work of art that brought you to tears?

I watched the movie Lion [about an adopted Indian-Australian searching for his birth mother] and it brought me to tears. I thought the little boy was just magnificent but also the moment near the end of the film, the reunion between the boy grown up into Dev Patel and his Indian mother, that’s when I lost it.

What is the biggest problem of all?

Our collective inability to agree on the nature of reality. There are such conflicting descriptions of how things are that it becomes difficult to make agreements that allow people to move forward. Something like that is true in the whole Brexit nonsense and in India, in the war between the current administration and old-fashioned secularism. When people stop believing in truth, it allows demagogues to come forward.

Are things getting better or worse?

Better and worse. Many of the science awards given by the Nobel academy show big advances in human knowledge. The political level is where things are worse but anybody who remembers the Second World War would say times have been worse than this. Maybe it’s a fault of the species that we always believe that our bad time is the worst time.

Where would you like to be buried or have your ashes scattered?

I could say in the centre circle of White Hart Lane, but there isn’t a White Hart Lane anymore.