TIMOTHY GARTON Ash, senior research fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, a scrupulously watchful and courteous English historian of perhaps 43 or 44, sits in a chair facing the window of his study in Church Walk, a marvellously sequestered enclave just off the Woodstock Road. His small, fine fingers are steepled and his head is bowed, preparing the words to meet my words. He is broad of jaw, and with an extraordinarily finickily trimmed ginger beard. All told, his serene, questing face reminds me of that of some 19th-century explorer - as if it would come into its own in sepia.
My compact tape-recorder - he admires its compactness - stands on a dangerously high pile of books with such titles as Consciousness Explained, Autobiographical Moments and Liberal Nationalism. Sunlight floods the room. It couldn't be better weather for a longish, measured conversation about dictatorships, spying, informers, and the general evils of the Communist past.
Though not a regular contributor to the British press these days - you are more likely to read his essay-length exercises in political reportage in the New York Review of Books - Timothy Garton Ash is a great expert on these dark matters, but especially in so far as they relate to the countries at the heart of Europe. He has written a history of Solidarity, whose painful and exhilarating bringing to birth he witnessed at first hand; another about the revolutions of 1989; and a big book about Germany, a history of Ostpolitik which, unsurprisingly, provoked passionate debate within the country itself.
But perhaps his most extraordinary, and certainly his most intimate, book, just published by Flamingo, concerns the file - all 325 pages of it - that the East German secret services kept on him during the time that he was living there as a research student from 1979 onwards. They knew that he had been a regular commentator on central Europe for The Spectator - or "Spekta" in the GDR informer-speak of his file - and that, being a journalist, he must therefore be a spy because, well, in their opinion all Western journalists were spies.
In a sense, though, he was a kind of spy, was he not, I asked, because while he had purported to be a research student working on a history of the German resistance to Hitler, he was also simultaneously collecting information in a clandestine way for a quite different book about the GDR itself, and the way in which it suppressed its peoples? (The research was never completed, though it may be some day. The clandestine book about the evils of the GDR was written and published in West Germany in 1979. It was even serialised in Der Spiegel.)
"You mean a spy for the reader?" he asked.
"Mm, someone who was apparently working on something, but in fact was working on something else."
I explained to him that when I had read The File, I had had a very strong sense of almost boyish enthusiasm on his part for the general idea of spies and spy literature.
"Not quite," he replied. "I'm actually not very interested in spying, though I was as an undergraduate. What I liked was the idea of being a soldier behind enemy lines. This was a very nasty regime indeed, and I liked the idea that I could do something against it with my pen. The concealment was simply a necessary means to that end. The other day I had a conversation with a Chinese dissident who's just been released after 16 years in prison. He said, quite without prompting by me: "if anyone wants to write properly, honestly, critically about China, they have to work like a spy." And I think that's true of such regimes."
An interesting distinction. So I pursued the matter a little further. I explained to him that I had only the shadowiest of notions of how he had set about gathering the information that was published in that book about the GDR. Was he asking, I wondered, seemingly innocent questions of seeming friends which weren't in fact innocent at all?
"It depended who I was with. If it was someone I really trusted, I told them what I was doing. If I was with a member of the Central Committee, I didn't, of course, and most of those who informed on me, as it turns out, were somewhere in between." Then he put the point a little more forcefully. "I myself use the trope of the spy for the reader, but I really don't think there are any moral comparisons between dissimulation in the service of a book and dissimulation in the service of the secret police."
Perhaps not. Books are such harmless things. After the reunification of the two Germanies, the Stasi files were opened for all to see. Garton Ash returned to Berlin and read the file on him - all 325 pages of it - documenting his movements day by day. It induced a kind of vertigo.
Who was the real Garton Ash? The "object" described with such loving attention by his informers? The man of his own memories of himself? The man as he is described in his own notebooks? How much of the self is imagined, and how much real? And how did this affect the way he subsequently thought about the writing of history?
"All history hitherto has been written with a rather simplistic assumption about memory, namely that what you have to confront is either forgetting or deliberate distortion by someone putting their own spin on the story - as Trotsky did when he wrote his history of the Russian Revolution. What you find with this experience of reading the file is that we all have this novelist in the head who is constantly rewriting the story in ways that make it more comfortable for us. This is neither simply forgetting nor distortion. It's something else. There is a new book called The Mind's Past, written by a neuroscientist, which argues that there is something in the left hemisphere of the brain called `the interpreter' which is doing exactly this - reinterpreting fragments of experience to make a continuous narrative, to make sense of our lives."
If this is true, history needs to be written in a different way. But how? I asked him. The answer began with a brief historical excursus. We need to go back to Thucydides, he replied. From Thucydides to the 18th century, people generally thought that the best history was contemporary, the history you'd witnessed.
"A lot of my work has been this kind of history of the present. Nowadays that's called journalism, and professional historians preserve their virginity by keeping 30 years of distance. You should start writing history now. And the other point is that we should be more sophisticated in how we describe what people are doing when they reminisce, when they write autobiography, when they write their own history."
As I listened to him forming his sentences with such practised ease, I began to think about his own history - and about, for example, his political classification by the Stasi, which had shifted from "bourgeois-liberal" at the beginning to "conservative and reactionary" at the end. Where did his own political - and party-political - allegiances lie?
"`Bourgeois-liberal' is spot on," he replied with some relish. "I always say Ich bin ein Berliner. By which I mean an Isaiah Berliner. I am absolutely a classic Isaiah-Berlin-type liberal with a small "l'.
And so I asked him the second half of the question again.
"And your party-political allegiances?'
"Well... I... I... I... I don't belong to any British political party, and that independence is very important to me as a writer. But that "liberal" with a small "l" will give you some idea..."
Charmed - but not quite charmed enough - by his coyness, I asked him straight out.
"So you voted Lib Dem in the last election?"
"Yes, I mean, since you ask, yes I did, but I wouldn't necessarily say that to be - and this is an important point - that to be a liberal with a small `l', believing as I do that individual liberty is the most important single political value, means that you have to vote Lib Dem in every British election. Right?"
A little later, down at the local pub, an interesting scene is played out. After we have ordered our sandwiches, the woman asks for the name. "Michael," replies Garton Ash. "I always give them a different name," he confides to me.
"Do you know his real name?" I ask the woman. No response. Perhaps she hasn't heard me.
As we walk away he tells me that the best one was undoubtedly "Salman". When the sandwiches were ready, she called out "Salmon!' He chortles and chortles into the sleeve of his beige linen jacket.
"Were you with Salman himself?" I ask him.
"Oh no," he says. "I was with Ian McEwan."
Such playful complicity between historian and novelist. No wonder he outwitted the Stasi.
`The File' is published by Flamingo
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