Ian McEwan: Why I’m revisiting the Seventies

In his new novel, McEwan re-examines his roots – and finds a strange connection between espionage and literature.

In Sweet Tooth, his fifteenth work of fiction, Ian McEwan revisits the all-encompassing "strife" of the early 1970s to present a threadbare and fractious Britain which its loudest voices believe to be falling into "decadence, decay, decline, dull inefficiency and apocalypse". If I had interviewed him even a couple of months ago, those "plus ca change" clichés might have sprung onto the keyboard almost unbidden. Yet, when we do meet, the sun shines, hard and hot, over a festive London on one of the final golden days of the Olympics.

"This is the first time in the national narrative that I remember when people have actually said, we are living through good times," McEwan says. He has recently "downsized" in the capital, keeping a flat in Bloomsbury while moving to the Cotswolds with his wife, the journalist and novelist Annalena McAfee, and looks on the happy city with pleasurable amazement. "I've never known London in such a good mood. I've never spoken to so many strangers. It might just be a weird delirium, like something out of A Midsummer Night's Dream – we'll wake up next week and notice that the Coalition is falling apart and the trade deficit is the largest on record. It is a curious moment."

A novel about espionage and fiction that traces the overt and covert connections between secrecy, deception and creativity, Sweet Tooth expertly navigates the gulf between perception and reality. Its feints and ruses prompt the thought that "all novels are spy novels". For all its critique of state-supported subterfuge, McEwan muses that "The end of secrecy would be the end of the novel – especially the English novel. The English novel requires social secrecy, personal secrecy."

An MI5 colleague of its secret-agent heroine re-defines the "line" between "what people imagine and what's actually the case" as "a big grey space, big enough to get lost in". Into that collective space have tumbled fears and fantasies about the end of the world and the demise of a nation alike. McEwan has returned time and again to the end-time mindset, in stories shadowed by images of breakdown, catastrophe and entropy in family, society and eco-systems - from First Love, Last Rites in 1975 to Solar in 2010. Yet he harbours doubts of our beloved tales of descent. "I'm not sure I believe in cultural decline," he argues. "Martin" – his old friend Martin Amis – "takes his father's view that we're all going to hell… I always disagree with him on that. I just think there's general cultural amnesia about how it was for most people in the Fifties. But what's not at issue is the endless discussion of economic and political decline which dominated the Seventies."

McEwan enjoyed the time-slip return to the politics and culture of his youth. Sweet Tooth recaptures an awkward age with a veteran's inwardness and a sleuth's tenacity rather than a glib pop-historian's hindsight. "It was a chance to re-examine a lot of things. I was 22 in 1970. I was very politically aware and read lot of newspapers – aware of all the things that were happening: the states of emergency, the strikes, the general sense of doom and decline. But I didn't really care. I felt that I had no stake in it. I had two pairs of jeans and five T-shirts and my flat cost £3 a month." He conjures up a polarised political climate in which "intellectual life was very much further towards the doctrinaire left than it is now". Terrorist chic had plenty of buyers. He recalls that "Although I was always hostile to Irish terrorism, I remember that among the intellectuals it wasn't thought to be such a bad thing that the Irish were blowing up children and shoppers on the mainland."

Aldershot-born in 1948, McEwan is the son of an army officer who had fought at Dunkirk in 1940 (and whose ordeal during the retreat found its way into Atonement). He moved from the peripatetic childhood of an army family to a (state) boarding grammar-school in Suffolk, then to Sussex University in its heady early years. After graduation came his stint as Malcolm Bradbury's first-ever creative-writing student at UEA in Norwich. That proved the seedbed for the neo-gothic virtuosity of his early stories – which the new novel teasingly passes through another lens. Its author-figure, Tom Haley, pens eerie and morbid tales that recall McEwan's own first efforts in mood but not in style. Tom even publishes an apocalyptic novella about a ruined Britain that sounds much like Cormac McCarthy's The Road but in fact derives from a dystopian fiction McEwan wrote but abandoned around this time. For the evidence, see "Two Fragments: 199-" in his 1978 collection In Between the Sheets. Now, he says, "I saw clearly how the times itself had written that book. Writing a dystopia fell right along the line of the mainstream of the Seventies."

Sweet Tooth also takes us onto the Sussex campus. Our narrator is brisk, bright but vulnerable Serena Frome: a bishop's daughter, and a Cambridge mathematics graduate with a greedy but untrained taste in fiction. "I thought I'd play to a kind of sexism in the reader by giving her a kind of muscular intelligence," says McEwan. Drawn into the security service after an affair with a dashing, enigmatic historian at Cambridge, Serena travels to Brighton to recruit Tom for an MI5-driven stunt without blowing her cover as the representative of a philanthropic foundation. Her bosses plan to fund, through a covert channel, a group of liberal intellectuals with proven doubts about the Soviet system, and so enlist them as unwitting Cold Warriors.

This novel of masks, doubles and disguises spun a surprise twist of its own when McEwan chose to name his idealistic young author "Tom Healy". A flesh-and-blood Tom Healy not only teaches at Sussex University but last month awarded McEwan a medal to mark the university's 50th anniversary. "I said, you've caused us a lot of trouble. We've pulped 500 copies of the proof. He was really distraught, and wanted to be in it." McEwan's re-spelled Tom Haley echoes his creator's views when he defends the cosmopolitan reach of the Sixties "new universities" against Serena's Oxbridge condescension: "I did want to speak up for rather heroic, maybe rather un-English, notion of what a university education should be, very heavily inclined towards Europe". McEwan admits that, for all his plate-glass loyalties, he tried to steer his geneticist son Will (the elder of two) towards biology at Cambridge. Will went his own way, studied at UCL, but seven years later did end up in Cambridge's laboratory of molecular biology.

Besides this liberal education, Sweet Tooth finds other bright spots amid the encircling early-Seventies gloom. Tom's first steps into the literary world allow McEwan to craft cameo roles for real figures who helped him on his way. We meet the legendary poet and editor Ian Hamilton ("such a sweet man"), holding court at the bar of the Pillars of Hercules in Soho as his brainchild, The New Review, hatches. When McEwan submitted stories, "I wouldn't hear from him for weeks. And then he'd say, 'Oh, it's not bad.' ... 'Not bad' was about as good as it got."

Tom visits another non-fictional literary lion: Tom Maschler, the "nervous, agitated, speedy" talent-spotting publisher at Jonathan Cape who shepherded McEwan, Barnes and Amis into the limelight. McEwan "showed him those pages, and he was delighted". Young Haley is also eclipsed during a public reading by Martin Amis – a modified memory of a less mortifying New York event moderated by the late Christopher Hitchens, the dedicatee of Sweet Tooth.

Many literary histories tend to depict the British early 1970s as a moribund landscape peopled by dull realists, waiting for the magic wand of Amis, McEwan and Co to awaken it. Sweet Tooth, and its author, challenges this myth. McEwan notes the prestige of heavyweight innovators such as publisher John Calder and novelist Anthony Burgess. In Sweet Tooth, Serena – a devotee of realism who believes author and reader share "a contract founded on mutual trust" – tussles with the modernist aesthetics of her protégé Tom. For him, "it wasn't possible to recreate life on the page without tricks". To which camp does Sweet Tooth belong? Suffice to say that, with all his cunning and dexterity, McEwan always knows how to add "one extra fold to the fabric of deception".

For Serena's clandestine employers, this fancy culture is a sideshow – albeit an exploitable one. So have I missed some crucial hidden history about MI5 and the literary scene? Apparently not. "I don't think MI5 ever backed ten writers and academics… I just hope the sleight-of-hand works!" For the shabby-sinister and sexist atmosphere of the security-service HQ, staffed by cynical and crabby shadow-warriors and keen, clever young women stuck in menial jobs, McEwan did consult a certain David Cornwell – better known as John le Carré. The novelist and ex-spook proved "very generous" with his reminiscences, and helped McEwan to bottle the smoke-and-mirrors aura of secret bureaucracy. "Because you didn't know what other people around you were doing, you couldn't tell whether they were complete idiots or unbelievable geniuses. You never knew."

The fictional Operation Sweet Tooth takes its cue from the lavishly-funded CIA schemes of the post-war decades. They filtered secret-service cash through front organisations into cultural projects run by anti-Soviet liberals and non-Communist radicals. In Britain, the funding of Encounter magazine by the CIA-bankrolled "Congress for Cultural Freedom" became the most notorious case. "The CIA did it because they could – a kind of madness," comments McEwan. "Because… their cause was not that bad. They were backing all the writers who spoke for pluralism and freedom of expression, but they sullied the ground by backing them in secret and making fools of them." As far as official support for culture goes, the first law is transparency: "All that's really required is that anything the state does in relation to the arts is laid on the table where we can see it."

Crafty, comical but finally heart-wrenching, Sweet Tooth becomes a study of how secrecy feeds off itself, and will taint all it touches. "True intelligence requires fabulous imagination," its author insists. "Whereas Operation Sweet Tooth is merely a self-serving, bureaucratic, automatic, self-expanding, institutionally-driven moment of no relevance whatsoever… When we were good, we sent our novelists in to bat."

'Sweet Tooth' is published by Jonathan Cape

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