Robert Harris: A writer close to the power elite

Robert Harris may have friends in high places – but that doesn't mean that the sharpness of his writing is blunted by compromise

Robert Harris is a very nice man. I know this because everyone says he is, and I know this because when, at his book launch – a launch heaving with political and journalistic heavyweights – I have to creep up to him and confess that I have somehow, mysteriously, managed to delete the first third of the interview with him I've just done, he is gracious and kind and instantly agrees to do it again. And I know this because although he is fantastically successful and rich, and lives in a whopping great house that triggers little stabs of envy in the hearts of all the journalists who go and interview him, and in a house in the south of France, and drives fast cars, and drinks very nice wine, and has very powerful people as his friends, people still can't find it in their hearts to dislike him.

But I don't interview him in the whopping great house, a vicarage in Berkshire widely known as "the house that Hitler built", because it was bought with the proceeds of Fatherland, his novel set in a post-war Germany where Hitler won. Instead, I interview him in a tiny office at his publisher's, Random House. Harris, perched on a swivel chair in smart navy suit and flowery tie, manages to make the office look like an arty teenager's bedroom. Really, you can't help thinking, we should be in a huge, oak-panelled room, where some uniformed flunky hovers with port and cigars. Because Harris seems born for the corridors of power. If he's not actually based in them, he's spent enough time in them to know how power works. And power has been the theme of his novels since that first one, the one that changed his life, and which won him a hungry, world-wide audience of literally millions.

Before doing this interview, I had never read a Robert Harris. I started with the new one, Lustrum. Right, I thought, I'll polish this off on the plane, on a trip to Zambia, and I'll read the others over the next few days. I didn't polish off Lustrum on the plane. It took me all week, in fact, between spotting lions and giraffes. Between the lions and the giraffes, there was an intricate, other world, Rome in 63 BC, a world in which Cicero is consul and Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Catiline and Clodius are vying for power. It was a fascinating world, a world of subtle political machinations and fine oratory and nuanced debate, and complex legislation, and intrigue, and an extremely absorbing one, but what it wasn't was a world you could swallow, like a delicious ice-cream, in two or three gulps. Since Harris's other novels, emblazoned with gold, sticky-out letters, are plastered with words in quotes like "blazingly exciting", "gripping" and "fast-paced", this was a bit of a surprise.

Then I read them (or most of them) and discovered that they were, indeed, a gripping read: Fatherland, a glimpse of Nazism gone tired that literally chills the blood; Enigma, a re-imagining of make-or-break in wartime Bletchley Park; Archangel, a rollercoaster of post-Stalin political intrigue in Russia; Pompeii, a tale of aqueducts and volcanoes, which manages to be compelling even though you know the ending before you start, and The Ghost, a tale of ghostwriting and political cynicism, about an ex- prime minister bearing a remarkable resemblance to Tony Blair. All of these are pacy reads, and so, too, is Imperium, the first in what Harris has planned as a trilogy about Cicero. Lustrum isn't. It's an extraordinary imaginative feat, but its texture feels different. Why?

"People talk," says Harris, scanning the tiny office for somewhere to put his mug of tea, "about their ideal reader. I have a shrill, Polish voice in my ear, saying 'no, no, no, no' or 'it's boring' or 'don't cut away too early'. The notion of creating a scene, rather than just simply describing what happened. I think that's very important, and that's something he believes in." He is talking about Polanski. Yes, Roman Polanski, who finished the final edit of the film of The Ghost just hours before he was arrested. It's ironic, perhaps, that in the week of the publication of his second novel in a Roman trilogy, Robert Harris should spend a great deal of time talking about a man called Roman. He's been defending him, as a colleague and friend. "What I like about Roman," he says, "is that he's both fearsomely intelligent and he likes storytelling." And, in the past, other things, too, but we won't talk about that now.

It was while writing Pompeii, six years go, and then reading Tom Holland's book, Rubicon, that Harris first had the idea of using ancient Rome as a springboard for a large-scale exploration of the political process. As a former political journalist (he worked for Newsnight, The Observer and The Sunday Times) he was extremely well placed to do this, but it was the togas that really set him free. "It suddenly struck me," he says, "that the conjunction of all these figures Cicero sees – Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, Clodius – all jostling for power within the same, small narrow streets, would give me a great way of looking at politics, which wasn't hidebound by having to invent a prime minister and a chief whip and all that rather parochial stuff you end up having to invent if you set a novel in Britain."

To do this, he drew on literally hundreds of Roman texts, including, of course, Cicero's many speeches. Having planned to write the story from multiple points of view, he hit on the idea of "using the real-life figure of Cicero's amanuensis, Tiro". Tiro was Cicero's secretary and slave, the man who invented shorthand and published a multi-volume life of Cicero, which disappeared with the collapse of the Roman empire but has intrigued scholars ever since. "I envisaged him as rather like dropping a couple of potholers into a complex of caves," says Harris.

It's a device that works well, and one that also serves to highlight the health of Roman democracy as well as the cynicism and power struggles of many of its leading movers and shakers. Women, of course, couldn't vote, and the electoral system was weighted heavily in favour of the well off, but the system was, says Harris, "in almost every way" a more vigorous democracy than ours. "You have annual elections for the senior jobs," he says, "you have elected judges, you have laws passed by the people. You had a very vibrant political culture where you could go and see your leaders, and they had to go and speak in all weathers, outdoors, and if they were boring they got pelted. We have an unelected head of state, an unelected second chamber, an unelected (at the moment) prime minister."

Well, yes, but in Lustrum (which, by the way, means the den or lair of a wild beast, and also debauchery, and also a sacrifice offered every five years, and also a five-year period, thus providing an all-too-apt metaphor for a government), there's plenty of political disillusionment, not least for Tiro, who observes Cicero's own gradual corruption by power, and muses on "the ineluctable consequences of a deed done by a great man for honourable motives". Is this the inevitable fate of all politicians?

Harris gazes out of the window. "I think so," he says. "Yes, because the problems are insoluble, really, in that the structure of democratic politics suggests that each side has solutions, but problems are never really solved. You can't solve the NHS, because it's always going to lag behind technology. You can't ever win the war on crime, or the war on terror. You can't repeal human nature. People get tired of you, and you lose, it's as simple as that."

That, perhaps, is one of the many reasons he himself didn't go into politics, in spite of a lifelong interest in the machinations of political power. At the age of six, he wrote an essay entitled "Why me and my dad don't like Sir Alec Douglas-Home". Not long after, he started making newspapers, full of made-up news stories, maps, and imaginary worlds. All of which might make sense if he were on the prep school, Eton, I'm-going-to-be-prime-minister-from-the-age-of-seven trajectory favoured by much of the shadow cabinet, but Harris grew up in Nottingham, the son of a printer. "My father left school at 14," he says, "my mother at 13. My father was clever, and well read. He took a newspaper, always watched the news, discussed it all the time. It's a sort of classic Richard Hoggart The Uses of Literacy background."

He always wanted to write, and started writing fiction, after nearly 10 years of journalism, and five works of non-fiction, because he "couldn't say all he wanted to say in the non-fiction". The first page of Fatherland, which was the first page of fiction he ever wrote, felt, he says, "like having had a powerful car in the garage and switching it on, and realising that there was literally nothing you could not do." Now, he writes for four or five hours in the morning, starting very early, and then leaves it to stew. "It's when you've stopped writing," he says, "and are doing other things, especially when you're asleep, that the real work is done. Stephen King calls it 'the boys in the basement'."

The fact is, however, that if Robert Harris, son of a printer, spends his mornings indulging his childhood dream by exploring imaginary worlds (a dream that has proved lucrative beyond the wildest dreams of most writers) he is also part of an elite, the elite that runs Britain. Peter Mandelson (a cat's-got-the-cream smiling guest at the launch, and the dedicatee of Lustrum) is one of his closest friends. Blair, who invited Harris to join him on the '97 campaign trail, and record it for The Sunday Times, was a friend of a kind – one who, apparently, was "amused" by The Ghost, and pleased to be played in the film by Pierce Brosnan – though Harris says he hasn't seen him since he left office. Doesn't this closeness to the ruling classes compromise his ability to offer an objective view?

"No," says Harris. "I always consider myself a writer first. One of my favourite quotes is the Truman Capote quote after he dished the dirt on all his rich friends, and they ostracised him. He said: 'well, what do they expect, I'm a writer'."

It would be tempting to say that this glossy, smiley, brilliant man, happily married father of four, astute observer of the rich and famous, who is himself both rich and famous, has his cake and eats it. But then, as I said, he's also very loyal and very nice. So loyal that he says he will stand up for Polanski "until the last dog dies" and will only say good things of Mandelson "because he's a great friend". And so nice that when I tell him, shame-faced, mortified, that I've had my handbag stolen, with the tape-recorder and interview in it, and that I've now lost not just the first third of the interview, but the whole bloody thing, and everything else as well, he instantly agrees to do the whole thing all over again.

'Lustrum' is published by Hutchinson.

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