"Room at the Top" and "The Vodi", has just published his third controversial novel "Life at the Top". Here, in a conversation with John Horgan which takes Christmas as its starting point, he gives his views on peace, morality and on the festival itself.
rgan : Has Christmas got rticulat association for you?
hie: The best Christmas I cad was when in the first year r marriage. That would bee see—in 1956. My son was ic way, and was expected in iary. and that Christmas we living in Wakefield. We'd just it a little semi-detached house wasn't anything very grand, t was at least a place of our It wasn't very well furnished; :..t there were really only two s furnished. as that was all iuld afford. We went to a party c Christmas Eve at a friend's
in Thacklcy. I remember rig out of the party, about ight, and it was a really did evening. It was frosty, but clear, and it was cold but not and clammy—quite a dry and dating cold. There was frost he ground. Thackley isn't a :ularly distinguished place, 11 around it there arc the hills he woods. That's the Christmas tember best rgan: What about Christmas season?
tine : f don't enjoy it
ly much. I object to this ess of "Christmas Numbers", (ample. Why on earth have the tmas issue in either the last of November or the first week oecember? Can't you have a .tmas Number in Christmas
when it would be part of tmas? I always feel disaped, you know, when I walk the street and see the istmas Number" of such and a magazine, and I buy it and I —how nice . . , how jolly— hen look at the calendar and .e it isn't Christmas yet. 1 it's an abominable custom. should put a stop to it; there's (cuss for it whatever.
nen : Is it that many things days seem to be going at the normal speed?
tine The things one doesn't to, yes. And the people who us are very good at doing s which are nasty and abominbut not so good at doing the things. The good things can Its wait, but the bad things re always in a hurry about,
like nuclear testing, for example.
No. I don't like Christmas very much because it has become such a travesty. Mind, I'm all for a feast. it's a very good thing for people to let off steam. I am more in favour of the Scotch idea of Hogmanay. I'm not all that much in favour of
excessive drinking, but still, I can
see the point in that.
And there again, all the blasphemies come up, you know. the Air Force and nuclear bomber bases have Christmas, and this couldn't be more blasphemous. Why, it's blasphemous of them to have churches at all. For all I know they'll have Christmas jollifications at Porton—at the murder centre at Porton. This again is a dreadful blasphemy.
Horgan: Where do you like to spend the season?
Braise : 1 rather like being in a City at Christmas. when there arc a lot of people about and there is a feeling that something is going to happen, but I don't like being in London because of the cars. I think it would be a splendid idea if they had to start putting up the decorations two weeks before the feast —no sooner—and if, for that fortnight, there was an area in Central London which was entirely banned to all kinds of motor traffic. As it is. although I like crowds and like being among people, it is positively a nightrhare, even though I'm quite tough. I mean. if you get caught in the rush in Oxford Street or Regent Street at the time when they put the decorations up, you feel yourself absolutely trapped— you get a sensation of claustro phobia and you don't feel well disposed towards your fellow men. In fact you feel full of hatred. If the government is supposed to care about these things, and all our leaders profess to be Christians, although they aren't actually—they're no more Christian than Mr.
Krushchev and his cabinet area they're supposed to be Christians, let them do something about making Christmas a more comely and more seemly sort of festival.
The world is so horrible
Horgan Do you not think that there is a sort of haven for Christmas in each particular home, as opposed to the "crowd" aspect of Christmas?
Braine: Yes, yes, there is. In a way it's a good thing and in another way it's a bad thing. Because the world is so horrible now, and such a frightful place, and because politicians are, almost without exception, I should say, are so wicked . . . vile . . . you look at the world outside and you say 'This is horrible, this makes me physically ill. And it makes one feel spiritually Al too — there's a tendency now to retreat to the home. You go into your home and you feel . . . well, now you're safe. Of course you're not safe at all. mean, "safe as houses" is a phrase which is absolutely laughable now. It has no meaning whatever. But at least within your own home you have the sensation of safety.
I think, in fact, that home life has become more important to the British people not less. All these amateur moralists, talk an awful lot of rubbish. But, as you say, people are now more keen on the home life than ever they were before.
Horgan: How are you going to spend Christmas day?
Braine : Weil, I shall have as quiet a Christmas as possible. I shall go to Mass on Christmas Day with my little boy, and then we may possibly have a few relatives in, very few. We're not going to have a full house and we're not going to have a party. I have quite enough of seeing people and having parties the rest of the. year. i don't really like going to midnight Mass much longer. I used to, but I object to the Church smelling like a distillery because so many people have been drinking. This isn't a criticism of any particular church I've been too but I think it would apply to virtually any church.
We don't listen to politicians
Horgan: What can you remember of home life and Christmas when you were young?
Braine: Well, we always used to go to midnight Mass. There were only two of us children, and Christmas day one used to always spend very quietly.
Horgan: You've just described the world as "horrible". Do you think that there is any cpntribution that you, as a writer, can make to help better it?
Braine: The only thing that the creative writer can do is to tell the truth about human beings as he secs it. This may not appear to have any direct relevance to the great issues of war and peace which now confront us, In actual fact, it has, as long as he doesn't tell lies to gain an effect. If he doesn't tell lies, he can himself have a very great effect—even an international effect.
In point of fact, the novelist and the creative artist are about the only persons listened to. People don't listen to politicians, because, for one thing, they hate and fear them so much, And for another thing. they're so boring. This is an actual fact. They are bores—they're very great bores. But they will listen to a novelist.
I remember when I was in the U.S.S.R., saying to some friends there; "What you must always remember when you're making films to export abroad, or when you send a theatrical company abroad, is that the best kind of propaganda is not to make any propaganda". I mean, if you see a film which is devoted to proving that Communism is the only possible system, and that all Communists are very good people, this leaves you cold. But if you see a film like "Ballad of a Soldier" that was a very good film. It was also terribly effective as far as peace is concerned. You went away realising that these people are not devils, they are people— like us.
Because it didn't try to make propaganda, it made the best possible kind of propaganda which is the truth. And this was a contribution to peace. Mind you, you may say "all right. it's a small contribution," but its better to make a small contribution than to make none at all.
On the level of outright propaganda—well, of course, one can't help saying what one feels—but I find now that 1 only have to look at some politicians' faces to gel so angry that I can't see straight. I can hardly think for—ragerightful moral indignation—and extreme fear.
1 think that the Church, of course, is woefully lagging behind. and not doing its duty, but then you might say—in a sense—it never has.
Russians are quite prudish
Horgan: Can you explain that more fully?
Braine: I mean to say that the Church is concerned with things that don't, fundamentally, matter. The Church is far more concerned with private morals ... well, let's say the majority of priests, to be a bit more accurate, because what the Church is concerned with never changes, and it doesn't change even when you have a Pope like Alexander Borgia, you see. But let's say that the majority of priests arc concerned with private morals rather than with public morals, and the majority of them make this distinction between public morality and private morality—there is no distinction, as Acton said, There cannot be any distinction. You have the paradoxical situation now, you can say this of all world leaders, that their private life is fine splendid — there's nothing wrong with their morals as private people. The same would apply to Mr. Krushchev, for all that 1 know; as far as I know he's a model family man! The same applies to the majority of the Russian people—more, I would say. than it applies to us. They are, in their private lives. as far as I can see, Victorian, and they're quite sternly moral. They're rather prudish.
The problem isn't their private lives, the problem is what they do as public people. Mr. Kennedy will go to Mass to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace. But, if a phone call comes through when he's in Mass, saying that nuclear bombs are being launched —or nuclear bombs are on their way—Mr. Kennedy, without one moment's hesitation, will order the murder of millions of innocent people. And he will not see any contradiction in him going to Mass and praying to God, who is a God of love, and ordering the murder of millions of people; he won't feel that he's done anything wrong.
Horgan: Do you not think, then, that there is any future for Christians as statesmen?
Braine: I think that there is a future for Christians as statesmen, or else there's a future for honest men. I think that the two great contributions which could he made to world peace would be, first, that all those who profess to be Christians behave as Christians —I mean, as public men, The other contribution would be that if they can't accept that, that they are quite honest, and don't put out any of this old rubbish about freedom, and Christian values, in which they don't really believe. The fact that they do speak the truth would be sufficient.
As it is, any time any Western statesman starts talking about freedom or Christianity, it is you might say, a gift—a propaganda gift—to the U.S.S.R. He does the work of the U.S.S.R. propaganda department for them. Now of course we have all sorts of dreadful things happening, we know of course that in Vietnam and in Mexico, for example You actually have Catholic
priests who go to these wretched people to preach against Communism. And this seems to me to be, again, blasphemous. It's not only blasphemous—it's worse, it's stupid! It won't work. It's not positive enough. Christianity is not against, it's not there to he against anything — its not even there to be against sin. That's not its concern; it's there to be FOR something. And it won't work as propaganda. because if your propaganda is always against something, then people start wondering —particularly simple people hying on the verge of starvation—and if you preach 'wail-1st Communism, and say that all the Communists are devils, the Communists have only got to send one good man— and they've got plenty of gond men working for them—and all the eilorts of the anti-communists are wasted, because people see the contradiction. I would say it was the job of a priest to preach the love of God, not the hatred of Communism—it won't work.
Horgan: Well, what sort of contribution do you think that the ordinary majority of people can make to bettering this ... this peculiar world?
Braine: They can use the brains that God gave them, and think. There are no rules against thinking clearly, And they shouldn't be taken in by any high-sounding words. Particularly, they shouldn't be taken in by politicians' words. actions should he: "Is it morally right or is it morally wrong ?" They shouldn't accept anything that they believe to be morally wrong.
Horgan: You think that people lodge things too much by expediency... .7 Braine: Actions should be judged purely on moral grounds. As a matter of fact, as far as expediency is concerned, this is a thing that one is often told by the politicians. They say: "We must be practical, you know. We must live in the world as we find it." And you accept this, but the fact is that they're not even very practical—they've got things into an absolutely dreadful mess. We've now reached a stage where the American State Department is saying quite calmly: "Soon we may reach collision course in Berlin"—1 think I've quoted properly. Well! What do they mean to say? That they're practical? 'They're going in short, to have us all blown up over something that is happening in Berlin, and when we're all blown up, it won't help the people in Berlin one little hit. In all probability, if there's a nuclear war, they're going to get blown up and die of radiation sickness too.
I don't pass any judgment
Horgan: Do you try to comment on this state of affairs in your books?
Braille: There is no direct comment in my books, and the characters in my books talk about politics and world affairs just as much as they would in ordinary life. No more, no less. Because people in ordinary life don't talk about politics very much. Quite rightly, they simply regard politics as being the means to an end. They look upon the Government as a public utility — they haven't got any great love for the Government of the day. It's just there. The real purpose of the Government is to do things for the citizen which it wouldn't be convenient for him to do for himself. When you say Her Majesty's Government its just the same as saying Her Majesty's Post Office—that's how we should look upon the Government. That's the proper meaning of democracy.
But in actual fact, if you do look at my books, you will find plenty of comment. "Room at the Top," for example, is very much a "shell-shocked" book. All throughout, if you look at it, people are rememberffig the war—of course, the time is shortly after the Second World War, People are remembering the war, and remembering it with horror.
Horgan: Apart from that do you try to pass any judgments in your books?
Braille: 1 don't pass any judgment myself, because once you start intruding yourself the story will go to pot; you'll start putting words into people's mouths — you can make them say things which in actual fact they never would have said themselves. And. of course, one must always remember when one is writing a novel that
your first job is to write a readable novel; the novel must entertain, otherwise no one will read it, nobody will be interested in it. It won't get published anyway ... although some of them do. But you must remember the demands of the story. You may even be prepared to put up with a certain minimal amount of unreality in order that you may have a story which all hangs together. People do want a story, and this is quite right, and we're always given our choice between reading a book that hasn't got a story and one that has. And if we are, we will always read the one that has got a story. even if we've got to put a brown-paper jacket round it.
Charity must come
from here It's not passive at all, because it's very difficult sometimes, to face what the truth is, and because very often there are things about which one might need to write but about which one can't bear to write. I can hardly bear to contemplate writing about the death of a child, for example, it upsets me so much. With adults one doesn't care so much, particularly if the suffering is emotional, and because an adult is free.
If you have a child, though, the situation is different. What does a child do if the father leaves, or the mother leaves? The child is helpless, And this is the absolutely terrible thing.
At school I was taught—and I thought this rather callous at the
time—that when you perform an act of charity you must not do so out of sentimentality, out of pity.
You must do so always with the
first motive that this is a good thing to do, the right and proper
thing to do. You must do it, first of all, intellectually. The impulse to charity shouldn't come first of all from here (pointing to heart), although if you're a normal person it will come from here: it comes from here (pointing to forehead).
Unless you train yourself to think in this way, to per
form charity as a duty, from here,
then, there may well be times I'm sure there are with me—when
you don't feel in the least chari table. You dislike people—particularly people who want something
from you, because very often they
are malingerers. It's then that this is important. if we depend on our
emotions, it's all right as long as we feel well disposed towards people, but we can't always guar antee to do so. That really is one of the themes of "Life at the Top."
Horgan: Do you think that generally, then, one can get from Christmas the idea of a message of of peace, truth, and goodwill—a lot of the things you have been talking about?
Braine: Yes, you can get that message, It's quite easy to get that message—all you have to do is not to listen to all the various conflicting voices that will come to you at Christmas: not to take any notice of the advertisements; not to read the sentimental stories, not. if you like, to read the Christmas Numbers — of course, everybody will have read them long before . perhaps that's one argument in favour of continuing the present arrangement!
And there's nothing to stop anybody from retreating and reading the Bible, you see. It s actually not forbidden for Catholics to read the Bible, though lots of them think and behave as if it were! They can read the Old Testament, and the New Testament too, and there's nothing to stop anybody from thinking. Sitting down and reading the Christmas Story, and just thinking, even for ten minutes.
Horgan: What else would you like people to do?
Braine: I'd like them to do two things: first, particularly on Christmas Eve, to adopt the principle of "open house." It is a festival, and people ought to enjoy themselves. But people will do this in any ease—I've no need to tell them to. I think it would be far nicer if everybody, instead of spending money on presents, had to spend the money on food and drink, and say that anybody was welcome, but absolutely anybody. This, in actual fact, if you look at Dickens, the Pickwick Papers, and Victorian novels in general, is actually what happened, You didn't have presents for Christmas—the children got oranges and nuts and so on, but they didn't get presents. But for about two days or so, everybody held open house, and you had dancing, a lot to eat and a lot to drink, and games, and all the rest of it. I think that's the best way to spend Christmas.
And the other thing one would like people to do is, quite simply, to think about it. If they just said: "Well, I'm going to sit down for ten minutes and think about the Story." And they could just realise that, after all, in his own time Christ was nothing more than a "Jewish agitator." It might be a good thing if they just remembered he was a Jew. I think that— almost, would be enough at this particular moment in world history, and they should just say "How would I feel about Him now?" And they could just remember. too. that he was very poor — that his family was very poor.