Sunday, 07 October 2012
'My generation has been utterly selfish'
On the publication of his brilliant new book, bestselling author Anthony Horowitz gives his most outspoken interview to date on God, Midsomer Murders, morality - and coming back as a Kit Kat...
By Matt WarrenAnthony Horowitz, tanned and immaculate in grey suit and crisp, open-necked shirt, is having a dilemma. Does he eat both fingers of his Kit Kat or just the one? ‘107 calories for just two fingers!’ he says, offering the plate to me. ‘Is it really worth it?’
We are in Vauxhall, a short walk from the imposing headquarters of MI6, talking about his vast new book about the end of the world. Oblivion, described as his most ambitious book to date and a truly riproaring read, concludes his supernatural Power Of Five series and charts the struggle of five teenagers against the mystical powers of darkness.
Horowitz is charming, immediately likeable – and a truly prodigious writer. As well as his 35-plus books, which include the teenage spy Alex Rider series and new Sherlock Holmes mystery, The House Of Silk, he has also penned many of Britain’s bestloved TV series, from the first seven episodes of Midsomer Murders to Foyle’s War.
But the setting for Oblivion is familiar Horowitz territory: a brutalised world, ruined by adults, ‘which can only be redeemed by the young’.
Successful, affluent and now a very youthful-looking 57, Anthony Horowitz is a blueprint baby boomer. But, despite his easy charisma, he is certainly no apologist for his own generation. In fact, when I raise the issue, he summons up all the venom of an Andrew Mitchell at the Downing Street gates.
‘My generation has been selfish, self-obsessed and utterly uncaring for the needs of the next generation, who will have to pay for our excesses,’ he says. ‘They have far less opportunity than we had and are going to be much less well off. This is a stated fact. The youth unemployment figures in this country are shocking.
‘I told people recently that my son [he has two boys: Nicholas, 23, and Cassian, 21] has just got a job and they hug me tearfully, saying “well done!” My son has a first from Edinburgh University in History; he should have walked into a job. But I do believe that the next generation will prevail, that despite everything they are smarter than we were, they are more connected than we were, they have a wisdom that we didn’t.’
So are we really facing the end of the world?
‘If you open any newspaper today, if you even glance at George Osborne, how can you fail to think that the end of the world could be coming any time soon? We’re clearly on the edge of some sort of precipice and governments are just trying to find sticking plasters to put over the problems. How much longer can we sustain the welfare state? The health service? How can we find the land to build the houses for all the people who are coming to this country? The end of the world is being thrown at you from every direction.’
Which all sounds rather gloomy. But Horowitz, still fingering his Kit Kat with thoughtful indecision, is anything but depressing company. He is outspoken, passionate – and clearly deeply devoted to his two sons, the product of his 25-year marriage to producer Jill Green. In fact, they have influenced the heroes of many of his books. ‘My sons are very active in shaping my books. Oblivion was largely rewritten after my younger son read it. There was one sequence he really didn’t like, so I had to tear it up and rewrite it totally. He also found the end too hurried so I had to rewrite that again, too. He’s fearless and he’s quite ruthless. Writers should fear flattery anyway – it’s too easy to get.’
Anthony’s own childhood was ‘privileged’ – his father was a wealthy solicitor and he was sent to boarding school aged eight – but ‘peculiarly emotionless and arid. I went to a hideous prep school, Orley Farm in north London, where I was pretty much mangled for life and was saved only by books and by writing. Having said that, I think that it’s very helpful for a children’s author or a writer for young people to have a – what’s the right word? – “unsatisfactory” childhood because it was a good impetus for writing the books. I have very much been moulded by what happened to me between the ages of eight and 13. Certainly, if there’s one thing the young mind needs it’s the freedom to be creative. I was a stupid, unsuccessful, fat, hopeless kid at a nasty boarding school, but books and reading allowed me to travel in my mind and escape all that.’
It didn’t put him off sending his own boys to boarding school, though. ‘It may sound very hypocritical, but when my children were 13 we discussed it with them, which wasn’t something that happened with me. I woke up one morning when I was eight and I was at a boarding school and there I was for the next 10 years and although I hated it and screamed and cried and didn’t want to go back, I was packed off every term to that hellhole. That wasn’t what I did with my boys.
‘We talked to them about it, and we all chose Marlborough College together. I was worried about their education: a fear of drunks and low-lifes in north London, keeping them protected, wanting them to be in a beautiful place in the countryside, but I missed them from the day they left.’
Did he pray for them? Horowitz, after all, was born into a Jewish family and Oblivion has some rather religious themes.
‘Oblivion is a religious book in a way, but I’m not religious,’ he says with characteristic certainty. ‘Religion has become a force not necessarily for good in my lifetime. There’s religious extremism on the one side and religious dithering on the other. The religion that used to be one of the great pillars of life no longer is and we all have to come to terms with that.
‘The trouble is, when my generation dismantled everything we didn’t believe in, there wasn’t much left. If you no longer believe in marriage, or family, or God, or authority, what’s left to hold society together? It’s hard to come up with a moral code that’s better than the Ten Commandments.’
I comment that he appears to be a very religious atheist and, for a moment, he puts down his Kit Kat.
‘I believe in the underlying rightness, the underlying sense, the underlying authority of religion, but unfortunately the way religion is practised and what religion has become fills me with horror. I disapprove of my own religion because of the horrendous experiences I’ve had within it. I think the Church of England has become tainted by less-than-effective leaders, by internal dissent, which has been vitriolic and destructive. And there are plenty of religions you can no longer even name without a sense of fear. How can that be right?
‘Modern religion, erm, dismays me – but that doesn’t mean that what’s in the Bible and what’s in the Koran and all the other religious books is not absolutely valid and valuable.’
So does he worry about growing old, about death?
‘Yes. Death horrifies me. I think a lot of my writing is propelled by a fear of death and I have a skull on my table where I work, a human skull to remind me of mortality. I don’t think that when I die there will be a heaven or a reincarnation, but at the same time I console myself with the thought that if I’m dead I won’t know about it. After all, if I were to come back as a Kit Kat, as far as I would be concerned, I would always have been a Kit Kat, so what difference does it make?’
But what about politics? Has that been as tainted as religion?
‘Definitely. The country went off kilter during the Labour years in a way that nobody has yet assessed. People go on and on about weapons of mass destruction but they don’t speak so much about the way we talk, the way we think, the way we behave, the way social mobility has ground almost to a halt. These are the lasting legacies of Blair and they concern me even more than Iraq, even though Iraq is a livid scar on modern history and will be until somebody is held to account.
‘I think Desmond Tutu spoke for an awful lot of people when he refused to share a platform with Blair. I find that the way all of them have tried to normalise themselves, Alastair Campbell with his cheerful tweets, Tony Blair with his round-the-world globetrotting and Peter Mandelson with his poor book and his media appearances, is one of life’s enduring mysteries to me.
‘Luckily, there is a generation growing up now that has not been tainted by these figures and I still live with their hope. The young readers of my books are the hope for the future, that’s why I write for them. They are the future.’
And with that he smiles, stands and finally puts down the Kit Kat, unopened, to shake my hand goodbye.
My fictional dinner party ‘I’d go for the evil ones. Sherlock Holmes, for example, would make rather dry company, so we’d have Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter, Fu Manchu – and definitely Jack the Ripper would make an appearance, as would Don Corleone. We’d also need some evil ladies. Perhaps the Bond villainess Rosa Klebb.’
My favourite Midsomer murder ‘It isn’t that dramatic, just a guy being stabbed with a pitchfork. But that guy was Orlando Bloom and there’s something quite special, I think, about putting a pitchfork into Orlando Bloom.’
The best line I ever wrote ‘No question there, it’s “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning it’s never good news” – the first sentence of the first Alex Rider book, Stormbreaker [which became a bestseller, spawned a successful series and was turned into a Hollywood film]. It changed my life and put me in a different stratosphere in terms of writing. I still remember the day that sentence fell on to the page and I looked at it and knew that I had unlocked something. At the time, my career writing children’s books was in question but my TV career was going very, very well. My wife was asking why I was wasting my time writing books that were selling only 20,000 copies when I could write television shows for 10 million. But then I wrote that line and the chapter that followed it and I went down to her and I said “this is the reason why I’ve stuck writing these kids’ books… this is what’s going to happen”. And I was right.’
Oblivion by Anthony Horowitz, published by Walker Books, priced £16.99, is out now.
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