So there are parallels with the situation in Iraq, the media overload and bogeyman-ification of Saddam Hussein? “Oh yes, absolutely. I'd also spent some time in Latin America, in somewhat the 'bad old days', in the Sixties and Seventies, where the idea of the Americans rigging regime changes or supporting really unspeakable dictators, people like Samosa or Trujillo for God's sake, who were every bit as bad as Saddam Hussein, it's just that in those days nobody spoke about it. It was Washington's 'Hold the nose’ policy as they called it. Down in Foggy Bottom (Editor's note: District of Washington D.C ) they literally called it the 'hold the nose' policy, where you'd have all these absolute bastards, but at least they're our bastards!”
What type of writing does he prefer to engage in, having written fiction, journalism, and even poetry. Is there one particular genre that he prefers to work in, or does he even make the distinction? “I don't think I do. The book I think I enjoyed writing the most, apart from Fernet Branca, which I really did enjoy writing, was a book called Seven Tenths, which was certainly not fiction, but it did require a certain amount of imaginative work, rather than just the regurgitation of scientific fact. I really enjoyed it. It was about the sea, about wrecks, about death, about the cultural implications of drowning, death at sea. We were on an American research vessel that was charting the limits around Hawaii, using sonar to map the sea bed, to find out what was in the 200 mile limit around Hawaii, which was just fascinating – never a dull moment.Then again there was also Three Miles down, that was a very strange book, and I really did enjoy writing that. I managed to get down to the sea bed in one of those submersibles, which is a rare privilige”.
And material he likes to read? “I don't have a preference, it depends entirely upon my mood. As a matter of fact I'm very fond of ‘American who dunnit’ type of fiction like Ed McBain. There are a lot of American writers that I admire. On the other hand I do indeed like reading non-fiction, provided that it's well written. At the moment I'm reading a book by Francis Wheen called Mumbo Jumbo, how mumbo jumbo conquered the world, which is a very interesting read indeed”.
One of the obvious facts about James Hamilton-Paterson, reading through his publisher's profile, is that he is an exile, in the sense that for the best part of his adult life he has chosen to live outside of his home country. Is he part of that tradition of the writer in exile? “Yes, I am. It's almost inevitable. I don't mean in a kind of self-regarding manner. I don't wake up every morning thinking “Oh God, I'm an exile!”, but when you've been living abroad for as long as I have , it does have an effect. It certainly has an effect in terms of setting a book in the U.K, which I've never done, and I don't know that I would have the confidence to do. I'm simply too out of touch. I go back twice a year maybe, but it more and more feels to me like a foreign country, we've obviously moved apart in different directions”.
Does that state of exile facilitate the writing? “As I've done that, I don't quite know what the alternative is, so whether it's easier or not, I'm not sure. Certainly it gives you a slightly different take on the country of your birth. I was in London about six weeks ago, and I did an interview with BBC, and they asked me a similar question, and I responded that I had this feeling that Britain was in a sense lost, the country that I grew up in, the post war period, that was recovering apart from the poverty and the dislocation of it all as a result of bombing. It was quite a poor country, struggling, but there was a lot of impressive technology, so for example the aircraft industry was booming and we were constantly being sold this idea of how British technology moving the world, which of course it didn't. But since then I just feel there's been a general loss, a sense of direction. It feels to me, from abroad, like a society that's lost, not its will to live, but its purposes. It doesn't quite know where it's going, like it’s killing time(laughs). God knows how one has the nerve to say all this from afar sitting in Italy!”.
And what of Italy, is it home now? “Oh yes, in so far as I have one. It would be pretentious to say I'm a citizen of the planet, but I'm not sure that I'm the sort of person who really needs to have a home. I'm under no illusions that I appear Italian, certainly not: my Father was Scottish!”
And Italian politics, is that something that he finds interesting, or dare I say it entertaining? “It's interesting rather than entertaining, entertaining would be too much of a foreginer's patronising take on things. I think it's very interesting. I'm particularly interested in the history of Fascism, and what actually happened to it, and the legacy of it, which is oddly visible at times”. Would he consider writing a book on it? “I've been under some pressure to think about it. I don't know as much about Italian politics as I did about the Philipines, and I've alwas slightly shied away from, I suppose, that awful discipline, it's a long haul to find out enough information to write about it. There are quite a lot of other people who write about it so well as well. It's getting to the point though where I feel I ought to write about it”.
And indeed one can only hope that he does. What a book that would be.
Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson is available now, published by Faber&Faber.