- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

He was, I hope, only joking, but I understand his point. When the novelist D.M. Thomas contributed to a new anthology, “Authors Take Sides on Iraq and the Gulf War,” he made an observation that did not cast his profession in the most flattering light: “I would much rather trust the views of taxi-drivers on any matter of great political importance than those of writers and intellectuals. History shows that the latter almost always get it wrong.”

Mr. Thomas had a good example to hand. Twenty years ago, he was asked to take part in a similar exercise — over the rights and wrongs of the Falklands War — and discovered that he was amongst just a handful of literati to argue that Britain had been right to take up arms against the Argentine junta.

History records that Mr. Thomas, and the British public, were right and the intellectuals were mistaken. Sooner or later, we will discover what posterity has to say about Iraq.

The latest edition of “Authors Take Sides” (a series inaugurated by Nancy Cunard, Stephen Spender et al. during the Spanish Civil War) does not actually appear until next month. But a lengthy extract in the Guardian newspaper gave a taste of the conventional wisdom. Mr. Thomas was once again in a minority: of the 25 contributors listed in the article, only six supported the invasion.

It is striking, too, that none of the dissenting half-dozen, with the possible exception of the novelist Francis King, could be described as members of the London literary club. The novelist Alan Sillitoe, renowned for his tales of northern working-class life, fell out of fashion decades ago.

The poet John Heath-Stubbs (born in the same year World War I ended) belongs to a generation that has all but disappeared. Duncan Fallowell is a cult figure at best, and Sir John Keegan will never be taken seriously by salon liberals because a) he is a military historian and b) he writes for the right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The big guns were on the other side. Lady Antonia Fraser and her dementedly anti-American consort Harold Pinter did their usual double-act, alongside David Hare, David Lodge, Thomas Keneally and one of the few American contributors, Paul Theroux. Louis de Bernieres, Jim Crace, Studs Terkel and Nadine Gordimer joined the chorus.

Did they give the impression of being better informed than the average cab driver? Some performed creditably. Thomas Keneally, for instance, set out his reservations over the prospects for a stable and vaguely democratic Iraq.

David Lodge agonized over fundamental questions of sovereignty and international law. Louis de Bernieres managed to make some reasonable points about Middle East history before lapsing into the depressingly familiar slanders directed at Israel’s “Nazi” policies.

Elsewhere there was the dreary sound of knees jerking into position. Margaret Drabble, forever stranded in the Sixties, denounced American imperialism. Nadine Gordimer, forever stuck in the apartheid era, detected signs of “subliminal racism.”

David Guterson managed to evoke the worst traits of John Kerry and Noam Chomsky: “America will only have peace and security when it sincerely addresses the legitimate grievances arrayed against it around the world. Will this happen? I’m highly doubtful. The blind greed of American capitalism, its inherent immorality, means many more centuries of horrendous suffering …”

One of my favorite novelists, Beryl Bainbridge — responsible for beguiling historical reconstructions in books such as “The Birthday Boys” — came up with a tortured and embarrassingly lame cop-out: “With the invention of smart bombs, murder is now best committed from a great height. I have no idea whether the recent conflict will lead to peace or stability. Why should it? Judging by the lessons of history, it is not bloody war but merely time that brings about change.”

Given that Miss Bainbridge had spent the previous paragraphs recounting her childhood memories of World War II, it seems odd that she still comes to the conclusion that conflict can never be an agent of change. How well would that line have played among the inmates of Belsen or the refugees in Sarajevo?

Still, Miss Bainbridge is a brilliant novelist, and this lapse will not stop me buying her books. I feel much less charitable towards the overrated and extraordinarily pompous David Hare, a radical scourge of the Establishment who nevertheless condescended to accept a knighthood a couple of years ago. (Even some of his admirers were taken aback by that particular display of chutzpah.)

As ever, Sir David went into indignation mode in his attack on George W. Bush: “I was taken aback by the lying. George Bush lied when he pretended Iraq represented a threat to the United States. He lied, saying it was a current or increased threat to its neighbours.”

At this point the great man became so overwrought that he rattled off into the realm of fiction: “He lied when he pretended it possessed nuclear weapons.” If the playwright can show me where and when President Bush announced that Saddam possessed nuclear weapons, I will gladly spend a month polishing whatever gong he received from the Queen when he made his brave journey to the heart of the ruling class at Buckingham Palace.

In the meantime I admire the courage of the authors who spoke up to defend the war in “Authors Take Sides.” (The book’s co-editor, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, tells me that Arnold Wesker, Frederic Raphael and Ferdinand Mount, author of that elegant defense of domestic life “The Subversive Family,” will also be speaking up in favor of the invasion.)

Their isolation reminds me of John Updike’s reminiscences, in his haunting memoir “Self-Consciousness,” about his contribution to the 1966 anthology “Authors Take Sides On Vietnam.” Mr. Updike was one of the very few writers to support, albeit with reservations, the American presence in Indochina (James Michener, W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore were also “non-doves,” as he puts it.)

He writes about his pain and embarrassment at being out of step with so many of his liberal-minded friends and colleagues. The fact that he was too old to be drafted added to his discomfort in a way. Yet even as early as 1966, he sensed that much of the opposition to Vietnam was part of a broader cultural war.

Where does Mr. Updike stand on Iraq? His name is absent from the list of writers in “Authors Take Sides,” but he did make his feelings clear in a recent interview: “My view is that the sanctions weren’t going anywhere except starving a lot of Iraqi babies, and that Saddam could play games with the U.N. forever, so something in me sympathized with George Bush’s desire to remove him. He’s paying for it, we’re all paying for it — the soldiers who are getting killed are paying for it. It’s very easy to say that this was a dreadful mistake, but I’m not sure that it was.”

Such nuanced thinking seems beyond the reach of Margaret Drabble and her cohorts. “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable,” she confessed in an article last year. “It has possessed me like a disease.”

Judging by another of her outbursts this month, the malady has affected her vision too. Writing on the subject of immigration, she described how, during a recent visit to Stanford University, she was disgusted to find that the cleaning and maintenance staff were mostly Hispanic while the student population was almost wholly white. To Miss Drabble, it was exploitation in its most shameless form. “When I commented on this, my remarks were met with denial.”

Did she consider that her claim was denied because it simply wasn’t true? When I spent a week at Stanford last November, I was struck by the mix of races on the campus. It would be impossible to find a similar scene at an elite university in Britain. Timothy Garton-Ash — who is definitely no arch-conservative — made a similar point in a recent essay about multi-racial California.

Perhaps I should send Miss Drabble a copy of his observations. But then, would she really want facts to get in the way of her opinions? Probably not.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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