The Hunter Davies Interview: For you, Tariq Ali, the revolution is over: The Sixties Marxist bogeyman has matured into a minor media mogul . . . and he has managed to acquire a sense of humour

Hunter Davies
Tuesday 22 February 1994 01:02

What happens after you've spent your twenties storming barricades, leading demos, organising political agitation? You grow to middle age, that's what, settle down, find a decent job, have children, then watch history start all over again.

This is Tariq Ali, now 50, once the nation's left-wing bogeyman, talking to his 10-year-old son. They are discussing what secondary school he might go to in September. Tariq would be prepared to send him to a private school, if he seemed keen, but the boy prefers the local comprehensive.

'I don't want to and you can't make me. That would be undemocratic.'

'Sometimes grown-ups know what is best for their children,' says Tariq.

'That's what Stalin said,' replies his son.

Tariq Ali was a surprising figure as a Sixties revolutionary. Far too handsome for a start, terribly aristocratic, arrogant bearing. He was born in Lahore of an ancient feudal family. His grandfather, Sir Sikander Hyat Khan, had been prime minister of the Punjab. His grandmother had 12 maidservants. Then his father broke the mould by becoming a Communist, but he too lived in some style, editing the Pakistan Times, entertaining prime ministers to lunch.

Tariq started fomenting unrest at the age of six, encouraging family servants to ask for more money, moving on to council sweepers, showing them how to strike. At 16 he led marches against the government. As a student he publicly burned an effigy of the education minister, who happened to be his own Aunt Mahmooda. At 21, under military rule, he was in serious trouble, about to be put in prison, so his father said he should go abroad quickly, and suggested Oxford. Bit of a jump, surely?

'I didn't know a thing about Oxford and had never been to Britain. My father suggested it because in 1939 he had been about to take up a place at Wadham College, but the war broke out and he joined the Army instead.'

Tariq arrived at Exeter College, to read PPE, amazed to see fellow students drinking beer, pint after pint. 'I couldn't understand it. Surely one pint is enough if you have a thirst. Tennis was another great surprise. A girlfriend took me to the Parks for a game, and I found I was expected to pick up my own balls. 'I can't do two things at once,' I said, 'play tennis and pick up my balls.' At home, I'd been used to ball-boys doing that. I never played tennis for another two years.

'The worst thing was college food. Absolute disaster. I couldn't eat it. There was only one Indian restaurant in Oxford at the time, the Taj Mahal. It was terrible, so I called for the manager. 'Why are you serving this shit?' He said it was for English students who knew no better. In the end I found a little old Indian lady in Cowley and for three years I used to go to her house for Sunday lunch.'

He joined the Union, all that aristocratic bearing serving him well, and became president, the first Pakistani. (The second, 10 years later, was Benazir Bhutto). In 1965 he organised a re-run of the famous 1933 debate, 'This house would not fight for Queen and country.' By this time, he was a violent opponent of the Vietnam war, a cause which harnessed all his energy and emotion. 'I got a lot of hate mail after that debate, from all over the country. I'd never experienced any racial hatred till then, but it came out in the letters to me. The worst was from the upper classes, people who'd been to Eton and Harrow.'

In his final exams, Tariq decided to bring Vietnam into every answer, regardless of the question. 'Politics was easy, but I had a struggle in economics. There was one question on subsidised transport. I wrote that the world's cheapest subsidised transport was the helicopter service from Saigon to the interior, the only trouble being some of the passengers never returned. I learnt later, from John Vazey, that the view of the examiners was to fail the bastard, but he argued for me. I got a Third.'

After Oxford, he threw himself into leading the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, addressing public meetings, leading marches to Trafalgar Square. His face was everywhere, usually to frighten innocent children. 'The attacks on me by the right- wing tabloids seemed unremitting at the time, but I realise they were pretty harmless compared with the Sun today. The bogeymen who came after me, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Neil Kinnock, had a far worse time.'

What I never realised was that for the first 18 months after Oxford, when he was already a public leftie, Tariq had a proper job - working for Michael Heseltine. Heseltine had been impressed by his presidency of the Union, and had told Julian Critchley, editor of Town magazine, which Heseltine owned, to give him some work. So he did some theatre reviewing and other articles.

'I was leading a march against the French Embassy one day, through Kensington, when I saw the Heseltines, out shopping. 'Look, darling, there's Tariq,' shouted Mrs Heseltine. I gave them a wave, then marched on. I was never totally what we would now call politically correct, even in my most militant phase. I always liked good food, good wines. I suppose it was because I had total confidence in myself.'

In the late Sixties, Tariq moved on from running a specific campaign to all-round, knock-about Marxism, helping to found and edit Black Dwarf, Red Mole and other dreadfully subversive mags, now all gone. Then slowly disillusionment set in. 'In the Seventies, we still had dreams and hopes of Utopia, but by the end of the decade the world had shifted to the right. The people on the left couldn't understand or accept that Mrs Thatcher was a populist. Like Reagan, she had captured the skilled workers, something we on the left had failed to do. The English working class is conservative - though not the Scottish working class. I always got a better reception in Scotland. In the end it's like banging one's head against the wall. You either carry on, or move sideways. I don't regret what I did in the Sixties. I was young, and took myself terribly seriously. In the Seventies I spent too much time in inner-party factional disputes.'

Today he is a minor media mogul, with his own independent television company, Bandung, with a staff of seven, going up to 40 when working on a series. They used to make the Bandung File for Channel 4, then Rear Window. Now they are branching out with a modern opera, words by Adrian Mitchell, music by Stephen Warbeck, and a series of three films about philosophers. Wittgenstein and Spinoza have been filmed. Shooting started this week on the third, about John Locke, with John Sessions as Locke, script by David Edgar.

He got into television by chance, 10 years ago. He was doing a column for Time Out and working on a biography of the Gandhi family when he was contacted by Farrukh Dhondy at Channel 4. 'He wanted a multicultural programme, filled with blacks and Asians. They put up the money, so we hired directors and staff, and starting making it. I called it the Bandung File because at that moment, in my Gandhi book, I happened to be writing about a conference that took place in Bandung.'

He's pleased that none of his staff has been laid off during the recession. He pays himself pounds 40,000 a year, but most profits are ploughed back into projects. 'If I lost the intellectual frisson of doing serious programmes, and had to do game shows to survive, I would give up.'

In the last few years he has also emerged as a novelist, not exactly to wild acclaim. The British critics have not raved about his two novels so far, but the last one, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, 'is a bestseller in Germany, having sold 20,000 in hardback. It's also been translated into Spanish, Arabic and, at long last, Urdu. It's my first book to appear in Pakistan. Up to now my writings have been banned.' He's now working on a third novel. 'My novels have only sold about 4,000 here, while some of my programmes have been seen by millions, but I consider the book to be much more important than television. It would be a killer, making only TV programmes. Even the best is ephemeral, whereas a book survives.'

He does two hours' writing before work each morning, then another two hours at night, when the children are in bed. He does look a bit tired these days, dark round the eyes, grey at the gills, but not half as arrogant. A sense of humour has appeared. Well, I laughed at his tennis balls story.

He has a 21-year-old daughter, Natasha, now at Wadham College, from his first long-term relationship, and has two children, Chengiz, 10, and Aisha, seven, by his present partner, Susan Watkins. She used to be a gardener but now she too is writing a novel. 'In neither case have I been married. Why should I get married?'

Age, he thinks, has mellowed him. He now has no interest in active politics. 'I was once on a march in the Sixties with some veterans from the Spanish Civil War. They had badges on, saying 'Veterans, Spanish Civil War', and I remember thinking: in 30 years' time, will I be in some march, wearing my Vietnam Vets badge?' Hmm. Little chance now. It would take something pretty dramatic to get old Tariq out again, even for someone else's march.

'One despairs so much about what has happened. The 20th century has been totally wasted - two world wars, fascism, Stalinism, the collapse of Eastern Europe. I realise now there are no easy answers. Gorbachev did have a plan for a third way, between Communism and Capitalism, but it was never given a chance. I'm worried at the moment by Yeltsin, pushing through undemocratic powers for himself. I don't think he's up to the job. Ah well . . .'

Time to get into his safe Saab, leave his spacious offices in Kentish Town. Home to the family and another evening sweating over his novel. He is wearing faded jeans, scruffy trainers, old pully. That's his normal working garb, even when trying to sell a prog to Channel 4's big cheeses. Only game show producers wear suits and smiles. Few people recognise him these days.

'In the Sixties I did get recognised a lot, but it always worried me. I never knew how they were going to react, whether they might abuse me. So when people on the bus or in the street said 'Are you Tariq Ali?' I would say 'No, sorry,' then smile. 'We do all look the same . . .' '

(Photograph omitted)

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