It is one of the most beautiful days of the year when I meet the novelist and political journalist Robert Harris near his west Berkshire home. A haze rises off the nearby canal, and it seems impossible this thickened English tranquillity could be anything but eternal. Let alone subject to the apocalypse that Harris has planned for it in his teeming, engrossing and clever dystopian thriller, The Second Sleep.
Set in 1468, or so we are told, the story follows young priest Christopher Fairfax as he travels to a remote village in Exmoor. He has been sent to preside over the funeral rites of the eccentric Fr Lacy. He eats offal stews and passes by inns on horseback. But things are subtly off about the novel’s historical texture. Fairfax is shocked by something green in the corner of his vision, only to be relieved when it is “nothing more sinister than a common parakeet”. He comes across relics from a so-called “ancient” past: “coins and plastic banknotes from the Elizabethan era”. The most striking object has been collected by the deceased Fr Lacy himself. A slim black sheath of metal: “On the back was the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy – an apple with a bite taken out of it.”
I am conducting my interview with the help of one such sinful device: something that, according to one character in The Second Sleep, is “an enfeebling and narcotic power that some say drove their possessors mad, to the extent that marked the beginning of the end of advanced civilisation”. Right now it is more useful to me than anything I own. It has my questions for Harris on it, which I have been able to edit on the move. It will record his answers. While reading his novels, I made notes with it, unshackled to a desk. I am completely at its mercy. And though Harris doesn’t use his smartphone to write, much of his research – the immensity and detail of which has often been remarked upon – is online.
“I have worked in the countryside for 26 years,” Harris tells me, “and the internet has made that possible. When I wrote An Officer and A Spy (2013) about the Dreyfus Affair, I started in January, finished in July, and it was in the shops by September. All because the research material I needed, including a secret file which at one time was almost impossible for even a British historian to get, was posted online. It’s been tremendously liberating. But we can also see that with any great revolutionary change it brings with it problems, and these are bigger than anybody thought.”
Everything around us has become so highly developed, civilisation so highly specialised, that it seems to me a deep vulnerability.
Harris tells me it has haunted him, the way things can suddenly disappear with no one quite knowing why. The Romans pulling out of Britain, say, and the technology that supported them being lost. “Everything around us has become so highly developed, civilisation so highly specialised, that it seems to me a deep vulnerability. Every now and again you get some computer meltdown at British Airways or the national grid. It gives you a slight tremor of how terribly things could go wrong if this became prolonged. A week-long outage generally affecting everything, which I am told is not impossible in terms of cyber warfare, could push us off a moving ship back on to which we will never be able to swim.”
In Harris’s new novel, our technological civilisation ends in 2025, and the action takes place centuries later. Neither we, nor the characters, know exactly what happened. Like 1992’s Fatherland – the bestseller about an alternative Nazi timeline that made Harris’s name as a novelist – this book involves the uncovering of a past hidden by authorities to which the narrator had devoted his life. To stop people digging up truths, the all-powerful church has deemed study of the past heresy. The texts of “antiquarianism”, as it is called, are destroyed. Sarah Durston, who has a store of mysterious relics in her house, and Captain Hancock, a wealthy mill owner who wishes industry to benefit from old knowledge, help Fairfax follow a trail that leads to one of the last technological human settlements. Before knowledge was lost during another “Dark Age”.
The ways in which the novel’s characters envisage that past – our present – is pleasingly anachronistic, showing us something of how previous generations might look at our own fictional resurrection of them if given the chance. One character writes of “aeroplane ports”, while Fairfax sees 18th-century oil paintings – more durable than photographs, that are here reduced to faint lines by time – and presumes them to represent 21st-century fashions. He puts together an amusing, uneducated imaginary composite: a time of “flying machines” lined up outside stately homes, waiting to take people back from elegant balls.
Taking its cue from the Book of Revelation, this new society reset the clock on the day this world ended
The church has taken advantage of such ignorance and opacity to promulgate a doomsday scenario, brought about by God’s displeasure in the decadence and moral liberality of that society. “In England before the apocalypse most priests had been married,” recalls the celibate Fairfax; “in the final decades, women themselves had actually been permitted to celebrate Holy Communion! Surely that was not the least of the blasphemies that had brought down God’s wrath upon the world.” Taking its cue from the Book of Revelation, this new society reset the clock on the day this world ended to 666 ARD: “After the Risen Lord.”
As a feat of world building, and of individual thought yearning for something outside of that world, this book is a tour de force. In fact it has so many potentially interesting offshoots to the main story – which is perhaps a little neat and lacking in filthy, bubonic antagonists for so cruel a setting – disappointment comes from its refusal to further explore most of these. The production company responsible for Downton Abbey who have the TV rights, however, intend to draw some of these out.
What might happen, I ask Harris, if if a technological catastrophe occurs when the UK is settling into its own new society: a post-Brexit reliance on geographically distant trade partners, rather than EU neighbours?
“As Churchill said in the war, the only thing that ever frightened him was the U-boats sinking supplies. Because the British isles couldn’t grow enough. And that was when we were more agricultural than we are now. I didn’t want to write a Brexit novel, but The Second Sleep is informed by the anxieties of the just-in-time supply chain.
Brexit seems to me hubristic. It's tampering with something that has given great prosperity to those involved
“There’s a Honda factory 20 miles away from us. In order to have nine days’ supply of components, they would need to build the third largest building in the world to store it all. That’s the world we live in. Brexit seems to me hubristic. It’s tampering with something that has given great prosperity to those involved. Maybe we’ll be all right! But maybe we won’t. If you’ve ever experienced the queues at petrol stations during a tanker drivers’ strike, or in cold weather when shelves in the supermarket are empty, it’s alarming. Especially if you have kids.”
In The Second Sleep, Fairfax uncovers a letter written by a Nobel laureate in 2023, describing the vulnerability of families who no longer have six days of food in their house at any one time, having only shopped for two. “It was a government minister who told me that,” says Harris. “He said it over dinner and I thought I’d put it in the book. This is for Brexit planning.”
Other spectres of Brexit haunt The Second Sleep. We are told very briefly in the course of the book, without fanfare, that in the aftermath of this technical or environmental apocalypse, that “foreigners” who lived in the British isles were massacred. Did Harris take his lead from less dramatic evidence in our current moment? The increase in hate incidents immediately after the EU referendum result?
“I think it did, if not consciously then subconsciously. I feel things are going backwards. I speak as an old liberal, of course, and it’s no surprise that things are targeted against the liberal elite. The liberal elite had certain values, so that Enoch Powell was immediately dismissed and ostracised when he talked about rivers of blood. Would he be now? I’m not so sure. You can call it snobbish or elitist, but there was a web work of an establishment to which certain views were not admitted. Now we glory in the overturning of all of this. The bomb thrower is celebrated and nobody cares if you lie anymore. Because the establishment of objective truth is also an elitist thing, if you like. The moment that truth lost its authority, we were heading towards a world of superstition and brute force, like the world of The Second Sleep.”
In the last days of the Roman Republic, populist aristocrats compete to be demagogues
It’s hard not to credit Harris’s writing, no matter when and where it is set, with some sort of sidelong prescience. As a political journalist he had a knack for it. He stood with Tony Blair on election night in 1997, and got off the New Labour train just as it was faltering. His trilogy of novels about the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, seen at the time to be a tribute to his friend Peter Mandelson, now feel eerily applicable to the current moment. In the last days of the Roman Republic, populist aristocrats compete to be demagogues. Will Harris further mine this current moment for future books?
“I think it’s a great mistake to try and capture the present in a novel. Because we’re too close to it. Also I’m wary of my own views. The interesting novel to try and write about Brexit would probably be from the point of view of Leave. In a way we need more of that, something that challenges us. I don’t want to write one more book taking the mick out of Farage. And I don’t think anyone yet truly knows what lies behind this extraordinary time we’re going through. And I would not take it head on. The Second Sleep comes from one’s subconscious.”
- The Second Sleep by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson. Robert Harris will be in conversation with Declan Hughes at the DLR Lexicon, Dublin, this Thursday 12th September at 8pm. Tickets are available here.