What we need is a Secretary of State for Imagination

Mar 16, 2012
Michael Bywater

And if Douglas Adams can't be in charge, then novelist Nick Harkaway might be the man

WHATEVER I said last week, it's not just the Mormons. The Christians are pretty appalling, too. Particularly American ones. Look at the Georgia lawmaker Terry England, a man with a beard, a ball cap and a banjo who appears to claim that (a) he's learned everything he knows about women from delivering dead piglets, (b) that someone, obviously fictitious, offered to give him a lot of cocks if "they" would stop abortions, and (c) that Jesus says he's right.

This "religion" seems entirely based on the god of the Old Testament (not just a book made up by a cynic, as in the Book of Mormon, but a whole lot of random books made up by mostly mad people and one erotomaniac) in his nastier and more infantile and sociopathic moods.

Jesus - don't you just hate people who call him that? Like he's a mate? - said nothing about this sort of thing. If I believed in him, I would pray: "Dear Mr Christ. Please let Terry England's curiously amorphous wife Cindy be screwing the pool-boy".

But I can't. I used to believe in Mr Christ but in the end, I was argued out of it all by Douglas Adams.
They were heated arguments. I would cite two thousand years of the Roman Magisterium and he would bring on Richard Dawkins. But drop by drop, and nothing to do with abortion or homosexuality or piglets or female priests or trans-substantion, my religious faith evaporated.

What I was left with was this: Mr Christ - Issa bar-Yussuf - was a man with a simple but crucial message, and one which keeps updating itself.

Nick Harkaway, in his extraordinary new novel Angelmaker, a genre-busting state-of-the-world meets technological thriller meets noir meets steampunk meets Peter Ackroyd's London meets whatever you're having yourself, almost gets it:

"The world is in the hands of idiots. The Cold War is over and what do they do? Go looking for a new one. We're richer than we've ever been. What happens? We burn the forest and borrow so much money that suddenly we're poor. Everything's upside down and it's just because people don't pay attention."

Almost. But I don't think it's about paying attention. It's about something far harder to acquire and nurture once it's been knocked out of us, as children, by education.


Seeing how it would be if. What the other chap feels like when. How hard it is to live if you can only. That sort of thing.

On Sunday, the Hammersmith Apollo was sold out for a show and a party to celebrate what would have been Douglas Adams's 60th birthday party, and the thought of Douglas at 60 taxes the imagination a bit, too. Old sketches were performed, people talked about his scientific enthusiasms, his dream rock band was reassembled, including Gary Brooker, David Gilmour, Robbie Mcintosh, Paul ‘Wix' Wickens and Margot Buchanan.

The money went towards helping Save the Rhino (the Chinese are keen on rhino horn, so it seems particularly crucial that they shouldn't get any) and afterwards we hung out in the bar and chewed the fat and reminisced and sort of forgot Douglas wasn't there and hadn't been for 11 years.  

Which must have been odd for his daughter Polly - my goddaughter, I'm unspeakably proud to say - who hardly remembers her Dad, let alone all these crumbling media folk claiming they knew him.

Walking back, I passed a branch of Barclays Bank and there on the door it said "We're Here To Help" and it can't just be parsimony that made them leave off the rest of it which said "...Ourselves To YOUR Money".

It can only be failure of imagination that made the fools come up with that. They couldn't imagine that every time anyone passes a Barclays, they'll think "twats".

And it's that sort of failure that makes Mitt Romney the man he is, Terry England the banjo piglet he is, David Cameron the twerp he is and all those bankers the delusional shits they are. Everywhere you look, you see imagination failing, and one of the joys of Harkaway's massive, enchanting novel is the opportunity to see imagination alive, throttle wide open and going who knows where.

What we need, desperately, more than ever, is a Secretary of State for Imagination. Douglas would have been the man. Harkaway might prove a more than acceptable substitute.

But the problem is this: how do we persuade a polity which believes the Daily Mail, which thinks the Olympics are good value, that the poor are culpable, the sick are scroungers, that profit is the only human motive and business the only model for human activity, that self-regard is forgivable and certainty a virtue... how do we give them enough imagination to see that imagination is the only thing that will save us?

  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, Heinemann. ISBN 978-0434020942


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Dear Mr Bywater:

Must you really sound irreverent to feel smart? Please try the road less travelled... And by the way, wouldn't "Mr" Christ have Hebrew names, and not Arabic, as you said? Stick to the grain of the post, Mikey. Sometimes being a smart-ass doesn't seem so smart...