20 Questions With...Tariq Ali
Date: 8 September 2003
Writer, historian & lifelong radical Tariq Ali, whose latest play opens this week at Soho Theatre, recounts a brush with John Lennon, mourns the managerial mistakes at Leicester Haymarket & hails the politics of Dario Fo.
Writer, historian and broadcaster Tariq Ali has written over a dozen books on world history and politics, and six novels. His most recent books include a collection of essays he has edited on the Balkan war, Masters of the Universe? Nato's Balkan Crusade, and The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. His new book Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq will be published by in October.
Ali was born in British-ruled India, where a Catholic school education did nothing to shake his life-long atheism, which he shared with his communist parents. Later, while studying at Government College, part of Punjab University, he was elected President of the Young Students' Union. He organised public demonstrations against Pakistan's military dictatorship and was banned from participating in student politics. After graduating, his uncle, then Head of Pakistani Military Intelligence told Ali's parents to send him abroad - his radicalism was becoming dangerous and he risked imprisonment.
He came to Britain and studied politics, philosophy and economics at Exeter College, Oxford. Joining the University Labour Club, he was a committed member of its Socialist Group before becoming president of Oxford Union in 1965. In the late 1960s, Ali ditched the Labour Party and embraced Leninism, becoming a leader of the International Marxist Group (IMG).
Since quitting the IMG, Ali has devoted himself to writing books, newspaper articles and polemical commentary on social and political matters. Still a self-confessed radical, he has remained at the forefront of anti-war campaigns and recently spoke at the Not In Our Name, Stop the War protest in London.
Ali's previous politically inspired stage plays, all collaborations with Howard Brenton, include Collateral Damage, Ugly Rumours and Snogging Ken. His latest independent play, The Illustrious Corpse, a political satire and homage to Dario Fo, premiered at the since closed Leicester Haymarket in June 2003. It receives its London premiere this week in a limited season at Soho Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born in 1944 in Lahore, now in Pakistan, then part of British-ruled India.
Lives now in...
I've lived in north London since I moved to London from Oxford in 1967, and for the last eight or nine years I've been in Highgate.
First big break
The only break I would say is that, when I was still at university, where I was president of Oxford Union, I got a phone call from a magazine called Town Magazine, edited by Julian Critchley and owned by Michael Heseltine, who said they would like to offer me a job after I left university. What would you like to do? I said that what I would be very interested in doing is their theatre reviews. So I became the Town Magazine's theatre critic and reviewed plays for them for a year, and subsequently I became reviews editor, in charge of all reviews in the magazine. It was the British equivalent of Esquire and very glossy, but it collapsed some years later. I think that was the only conventional job I ever did. Subsequently, from late 1967 onwards, we were inventing political underground magazines, like Black Dwarf and Red Mole, which I edited. Then I became a freelance writer, which I've been ever since.
Career highlights to date
A big highlight when editing the Red Mole was a phone call from John Lennon. We had a long chat, and I think I asked him for an interview. And he said, "Surely your magazine is too important and serious to be interviewing frivolous people like me?" But he agreed, and we did a two-page interview with him. What flowed from that was that he rang me the next morning and said, "I was so inspired by our interview that I've written a song for you that the movement can sing." It was called "Power to the People". And he sang it to me on the phone!
Prior to that one of the many highlights of the Black Dwarf was when Mick Jagger wrote "Streetfighting Man", that was also for me, and the BBC refused to play it! And Mick wrote out the words and sent it with a message, "Dear Tariq, The BBC are refusing to play this song, and I thought you should put it in the Black Dwarf ". So we published it in the magazine, and talked about BBC censorship. Stupidly, I never kept the handwritten version - we photographed it, and then threw it away. If I'd kept it, we could have funded four new magazines!
With so many strings to your bow - writer, broadcast, historian - what do you normally cite as your profession?
I would say writer. My life over the last 20 years has been writing books, both fiction and non-fiction, and plays and film scripts.
One of my favourite actors for a long time since I first saw him on the stage has been Alfred Molina. He was in Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist - a great show that had a big impact on me -and I've always liked Molina as an actor. David Calder is another, I'm a great fan of his work. I think David is probably one of the more underrated great actors that we've got. Russell Dixon, who is in The Illustrious Corpse, first worked with me at the RSC on Moscow Gold, in which David Calder played Gorbachev and Russell played Yeltsin. These are actors who are good at working with companies and inspiring other people, apart from being good actors themselves.
Kristin Milward who is in The Illustrious Corpse, is again a much underrated, very powerful actress. I also like Susan Wooldridge, and another actress who has a lovely voice, Elizabeth Mansfield. She does shows, about people like Piaf and Marie Lloyd, in which she sings a lot. These are people who really know how to work the stage, and when you compare them to some big Hollywood names, who come because they want to be on stage, there is no comparison.
I guess one of my favourite directors of all time is John Dexter, who is now dead. He was a very great director and I admired him and his work greatly. Max Stafford Clark is a very good technician: very meticulous and minimalist, and gets good performances out of people. Of all the living directors, he is very good. Christopher Morahan, who directed one of my plays, Ugly Rumours at the Tricycle, is from the old school, and I think the Complicite guy Simon McBurney is very gifted and probably the closest thing we've got to Meyerhold. I also admire Peter Brook greatly. They're all very different.
Of living playwrights: Dario Fo in Italy; Harold Pinter, I really think he comes very close to genius; Howard Brenton's work I've always liked; early David Hare (not the later ones); early David Edgar. Of past playwrights, Sarah Kane was incredibly gifted - very different but very driven, and I think you have to be driven that good, to make that impact.
What play (by someone else!) would you most like to have written?
There's no doubt in my mind. Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist was, for me, everything: vicious, satirical, political, making a very serious point through this incredibly surreal humour, and I loved that. It is one of my favourite contemporary plays. If talking about the 20th century, Brecht's Galileo is also for me one of the great plays.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I missed the recent Donmar Warehouse Accidental Death of an Anarchist. I'm always nervous. After I made the mistake of going to see Peter Weiss' repeat of the Marat/Sade, I try to avoid repeats. I prefer to keep the memory of what I've seen originally. I don't go to the theatre that much.
What differences do you find writing for the stage versus writing non-fiction, novels & film scripts?
The big thing about writing for the stage is that you get a daily feedback. And it's the collective side of writing for the stage that I've always loved. You sit at the back of an audience and see and hear their responses. You cannot get that with a novel, which is a very lonely task. They're very different. I love doing stuff for the theatre, precisely to get some link and rapport with a live audience. Nothing quite matches it.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I would say to the government: Do not force theatres all over the country to go down the market route, which is what has been happening since Thatcher's time. Given the amount of money that the government has raised from this indirect taxation known as the lottery, a larger chunk of that money should be given over for culture, including theatres, to encourage experimentation and innovation. If we don't do that, all the theatres try to go for the same thing. If you travel over the continent, they find old buildings - disused warehouses in the docks and factories - and transform them into the most wonderful theatrical locations. Here we have theatres closing down and constantly trying to raise money - like the Leicester Haymarket.
Too many to enumerate, but one of the most underrated novelists of our time, still very much alive, is Saudi Arabian, Munif, who has written five novels which are the most vivid picture of the history of that country and its people that I have ever read. They're translated very brilliantly into English and published by Random House in the States, but not understood in the West. I like his work, in particular Cities of Salt, a very powerful book.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love Italy - Sicily, Sardinia, and some of the lesser-known parts of Tuscany.
Counterpunch.com, a very radical American website; and Znet. When I'm travelling abroad, I go to the Guardian website for the news - I love it that you can read the paper now wherever you are!
How did The Illustrious Corpse come about?
It was commissioned by Leicester. Howard Brenton and I normally work together on plays, and we went to talk to them, but he was very busy doing his television work, so I agreed to do it alone. Then I thought about a homage to Dario Fo: to do something totally surreal and crazy, and that's how it came out. Here is someone who has committed a murder and wants to be tried for it, and the conceit is they don't want to try her.
Why did you want to write an homage to Dario Fo?
I'm not saying I'm that brilliant at it, but I think it's extremely important to do political stuff, that is both surreal and funny but also viciously political, in order to encourage a new generation to realise that this is possible, that it can be done. I think we are losing that ability. Fo is one of my favourite 20th-century dramatists: he's very relevant and totally engaged. That is what I think the theatre has to be about. I remember that when Brenton and I did a play about the Rushdie affair, just after the fatwa, called Iranian Nights. Arthur Miller came to see it, and as he walked out, he said the whole pavement was arguing about it. He sent us a message and said that is what the theatre should be.
Isn't there a danger of such topical, political theatre dating? What kind of real power can political theatre exert?
There is that danger, I agree, but people write different sorts of things at different times. The best work in this genre doesn't date: Accidental Death is still being done now. Theatre can't exert that much power as such, any more than a lot of other media. But it's very important for preserving a dissenting space within the culture and that's why, when the whole Thatcherite onslaught on culture began, all the big subsidised companies like the National and RSC moved towards the same ground - musicals, musicals, musicals, and cutting down new writing - a climate of fear was created. The Blairites have more or less continued this, so it's really good to try to carry on the struggle to find a space for dissent and integrity. Whether the plays work or not is something else, but the space has to be there.
Would you like Government members to see The Illustrious Corpse?
I just don't care about them. This is a government that doesn't like culture. Leaving aside culture, it hates being criticised! It would be wonderful if the whole Cabinet came, but I don't think somehow they would be able to take it.
What's your favourite line from The Illustrious Corpse?
It's when the head of Scotland Yard asks the Home Secretary's wife something like: "Are you seriously trying to tell me that you murdered the Home Secretary for philosophical differences?"
The Illustrious Corpse was the final production at Leicester Haymarket prior to its indefinite closure. What's your view on the theatre's prospects for recovery?
All over the country, there's a dead hand of managerialism, a belief that that's the only way to do it. I don't blame the theatre people; that's the way the government have set it up. But this is not what creative people should be doing, it's shocking that they've been forced into this situation, and it basically makes them complicit in government policies. They do it - and then they have to sack people. It's easy for me to say, but if I'd been running that theatre or any other, I would really try to find a disused space - a factory, whatever - and keep the theatre going until the new one is built, to maintain a sort of theatrical presence until then.
What are your plans for the future?
I write plays when something happens or occurs to push me in that direction. I like working with others on them, so we'll have to wait. But I'm very tempted by writing a 30-minute monologue: I have thought of doing a Bush monologue. It's very difficult to pull off, but it tempts me. I am also writing fiction, and am working on my next novel, the fourth in my Islam Quintet. My latest book, a history of Iraq called Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq, is being published (on 10 October 2003) by Verso. It's a history polemic.
- Tariq Ali was speaking to Mark Shenton
The Illustrious Corpse has a limited London season at Soho Theatre, where it runs from 10 to 27 September 2003 (previews from 8 September).