There are certain writers who seem singled out to bear witness to their times. Neal Ascherson first had a graphic inkling of that fate when he was a small boy in Peterborough, where his father, a naval officer, was stationed at a factory making torpedoes. “It would have been the summer of 1940,” Ascherson says, “and I was coming back to the village where we lived, from school, on the bus. I must have been seven. This aircraft appeared as I was walking back to our house. Like all small boys I knew my bomber planes and I recognised it as a German Dornier, flying low. I didn’t hear it firing, but my mother did. She was watching for me from a window and almost died of horror. Some fucker in the belly turret of the plane let off some machine gun rounds at me. I was the only person in the whole landscape, a little boy with a school bag. The noise of the engine was so loud I didn’t hear anything, and obviously he missed, but afterwards the trees all along the road had these white scars where the bullets had gone in.”
Ascherson is telling me this story, with a characteristic twinkling smile, from his sofa in the tall terrace house near Highbury Fields in north London where he has lived for 40 years with his second wife and fellow journalist, Isabel Hilton. The previous night he had celebrated his 90th birthday at the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington where his old friend, the playwright Michael Frayn, a youthful 89, had toasted him as a man of “rare charisma, like a 19th-century romantic hero, with a kind of nobility that has always seemed a kind of human gold standard”. Ascherson wears those traits lightly, but you glimpse them all the same. In some ways, that near-miss from the Luftwaffe established the pattern of his life: if European history was happening, he was never far away.
In recent years, he has been turning a lot of that long-ago past over in his head. He always imagined he was going to be a novelist, not a journalist, and made good on that ambition at 84 with his perfectly crafted debut work of fiction, The Death of the Fronsac. The novel returned him to his most settled childhood home, at Greenock on the banks of the Clyde beyond Glasgow. “It seemed to me that Greenock was near the centre of the world at that moment,” he recalls, laying out the scene to me as it appeared from his bedroom window. “To the east there was a zone of ruins where it had been very heavily blitzed in 1941. Beyond that, the shipyards, that constant din and the sight of enormous crowds of men moving across the town on shift and off shift. And then the fact of all these foreign navies: the Polish, the free French and the Americans. The whole estuary was full of battleships and I had Jane’s Fighting Ships to identify them all. Just occasionally my father would tell me: Neal, remember, you didn’t see that one.”
Even attempts to remove him from proximity to the war failed. “My mother,” he says, with a raised eyebrow, “wanted to get me out of the way of the bombs, so rather surprisingly she sent me away to a prep school on the south coast of England near Swanage. It was two miles from Wareham where it later transpired the Germans were planning to land their main parachute division. We could watch U-boat battles at sea and the bomber fleets flying overhead.”
Ascherson carried those experiences with him. He owed his education, he says, entirely to an English Plantagenet king. He won a Henry VI scholarship to Eton and then, after national service, in the Royal Marines, another, bequeathed by the same monarch, to King’s College, Cambridge. He was taught there by Eric Hobsbawm. The Marxist historian became a lifelong friend and described Ascherson as the most brilliant student he ever had.
He could have done almost anything with his degree, but there was only one job he wanted: foreign correspondent. “The reason I didn’t become an academic – though they asked me to stay on at Cambridge – was because I’d done national service in an exotic part of the world, Malaya, as it then was. I just thought, I want to go back to that world. The big world outside.”
To that end he worked first at the Manchester Guardian, “in the offices in Cross Street, a place full of mythology and the most bizarre people” and joined the Observer at the beginning of the 1960s. Among his new colleagues was Kim Philby, later exposed as a Russian spy. “He seemed a poor old man, all shaky with a terrible stammer. We had these awful huge heavy typewriters. And I remember I used to carry his for him as he looked to find somewhere to write in the office. I didn’t see any of the iron-willed Philby – but I suppose that must have been there inside.”
The Observer at the time was edited by David Astor, an heir of the American dynasty, and populated by people he had fought alongside in the war. “Astor was wounded in France, he had parachuted in and got into a firefight and the head of that unit who helped to save him, Terence Kilmartin, he made his literary editor.” Many of the staff, Ascherson says, “had been in MI5 and MI6 or had been in Bletchley”. He would be introduced to people at London clubs by Edward Crankshaw, the newspaper’s Soviet specialist and another former British spy. “I started receiving all this completely useless material,” Ascherson says. “It always makes me laugh when people talk about the intelligence community feeding journalists stuff. Anyone who used that shit wouldn’t last five minutes, though one or two who worked on the Telegraph might put it in the paper.”
He was a frustrated home reporter for a while on the Observer, but eventually Astor called him in and said: “I think we’ve got something for you: Germany.” He thought: “Germany? Oh, no! How dull.” But it was that or nothing.
In a scene that seems lifted from a le Carré novel, he was then accompanied to Liverpool Street station and a train bound for the steamer at Harwich by Mark Arnold-Forster, three times mentioned in dispatches during the war and now Observer foreign editor. “Mark supplied me with contacts and said goodbye in a cloud of smoke and steam,” Ascherson says. “I was in Bonn from ’63 to ’66. Then finally I achieved my ambition in getting to West Berlin. The beat was central Europe. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary mainly. So I did the latter part of the cold war, you could say, from West Berlin.”
There is considerable understatement in that account. Ascherson’s weekly reporting for more than 30 years not only kept the world behind the iron curtain alive for a generation of readers, it also was critical in shaping debate about the continent’s future. One central mission of Astor’s paper was, he says, initially “to help stabilise relations between the two cold war blocs, reduce tension”; no British writer gave more context and nuance and empathy to that effort than Ascherson.
His tour of duty culminated in his greatest book, Black Sea, which used the history of that region – centuries of conflict between east and west – to help explain the present. The book was written in 1996. Reading it again now, with its tales of Crimea, is like having the backstory to the news. Did he have a strong sense of “unfinished business” there after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
“To be honest,” he says, “I was optimistic after the wall came down. Russia had been turned inside out by Gorbachev; it was finally going to resolve itself into some form of rough democracy. What I really thought might happen was the kind of settlement that Gorbachev suggested: abolish the Warsaw Pact and Nato and have a single alliance. That didn’t happen, inexplicably really. And I think Russia still has grounds to feel cheated by that.”
One of the lessons of those subsequent 25 years, I suppose, is that we underestimate the power of nationalism at our peril?
“Yes. I was quite shaken by the Yugoslav wars. I had been in Serbia as a student. I didn’t see the way in which historical ferocities could re-emerge. But the lesson, for me, is less about nationalism, more about how vile extreme cliques can make their way to the top of any kind of government and push everybody else aside. I’m not against nationalism: I am a nationalist, I want Scotland to be independent. But it’s a spectrum. From deeply progressive nationalism, which wants to break away from ancient constricting reactionary habits. And, the other end of the spectrum, the Slobodan Milošević-type nationalism that you see in Russia today.”
Ascherson’s belief in Scottish independence was informed in many ways by his eye-witness reporting of solidarity and democracy movements in central Europe. He describes the best times of his life and career as the years in which he first lived with Isabel Hilton, in Edinburgh in the early 1970s.
“I returned to work at the Scotsman for a while and I was able to apply to Scotland’s politics and culture everything that I learned about central Europe. We shared a flat with Tom Nairn [another charismatic voice of the independence movement] and we were all there for years conspiring and laughing and having ideas and occasionally writing books.”
He was always wary of making too many comparisons with Poland and Czechoslovakia. “There was certainly an awakening in a lot of young people in Scotland but obviously writers and artists weren’t oppressed, though objectively publication of their works was very slight. I always remember a man I knew in Lochgilphead who drove a post office van and he would give me lifts to places. I discovered that he was part of a large circle of people trying to get hold of out-of-print Scottish novels, for example Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. When he got a copy he would deliver it to others in his van. That was the closest we got to samizdat.”
That lifelong, romantic ideal of self-determination must feel closer now than it’s ever felt? “The idea that independence is a serious option, not just a wild fantasy, has rooted itself. The two countries diverging slowly. But at the same time, the most basic fact is that the relationship within England is uniquely intimate.”
Were his parents sympathetic to the cause? “My father died far too early in 1955. My mother lived to be 97 and was an extraordinary bundle of attitudes. Basically, she voted for people when she knew the family. At one point that meant SNP. She would quote Walter Scott: “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, this is my own, my native land!”, but she was at the same time intensely union jack patriotic, loyal to the crown, to the Royal Navy.”
Ascherson is quite a bundle of attitudes himself. Never convinced by Marx as a prophet, fascinated and troubled by Calvinism, he resisted ideology in favour of curiosity and doubt. Orwell must have been a guiding spirit?
“Orwell is kind of a saint in terms of the incomparable bullshit-meter he had in his head,” he says, with a smile. “He could tell what was false and wrong. Of course, there was quite a disagreeable side to him as well. He was absolutely right to expose the hypocrisy of a lot of intellectual lefties in his own time. But the way in which he drew up a list of people and sent it to the intelligence services – he let himself down. A little too Orwellian.”
In his long career in the cold war from Philby onwards, Ascherson has had plenty of dances around intelligence services. He never found the East German Stasi file on him – “the Americans got there very fast and took all the foreign correspondent files” – but he has seen the Polish version.
“It was a combination of sometimes very sharp analysis of the sort of person I was,” he says, “and unbelievably fumbling, hilarious covert operations. At one point they were reporting on a mystery woman who was periodically staying with me in the Hotel Europejski. Agents were in a car outside 24 hours a day. They had photographs and everything in the file, but they never identified the woman. It was my wife.”
For someone who lived through so much adventure, Ascherson has never succumbed to rose-tinted ideas of the past. “In general,” he says, “journalism was so much easier in my time – you had more time to think. Though some things have improved. I remember how you’d be standing in a rainstorm in Belgium, hammering on the door of a phone box trying to get the Daily Express man out so you could file your copy and then realising you hadn’t enough coins and didn’t know the Flemish for how to reverse charges.”
As he enters his 10th decade, Ascherson is still writing wonderful essays, learned and witty and true, on all sorts of subjects for the London Review of Books and its New York equivalent. Does he still do it with the old enthusiasm?
“I do,” he says, “although my eyesight is beginning to go a bit and that means that I have to go back over every two lines that I’ve typed and correct the gibberish. My increasing deafness is the real obstacle to doing journalism, because if there is background noise I struggle to hear what people say and that’s no good for a reporter. And also I’m beginning to lose some of my foreign languages.”
When I express a sort of awe at his continued productivity, he laughs it off. “I feel I’ve been idle and could have done so much more,” he says, “produced so much more. You waste so much time.” One thing he is glad of is not to have to bother with social media. “It’s just this great cataract of opinion. A bit of opinion is OK. But what you really want is proper information.”
How does he get that these days?
“Well, the routine in the week is I get the Guardian in the morning,” he says. “And I sit down to read that quickly, including the obituaries, which is a sign of age. And then I read two Scottish papers online, usually the National and the Herald. I’ll look at Gazeta Wyborzca, the Polish daily. We get the New Statesman and the LRB and the NYRB, obviously. And we get the New York Times, which I’ll spend some time on. But,” the great newspaperman says, without irony, “these days, I’m afraid that’s about it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism