February 24, 2012 11:15 pm

The Diary: Simon Sebag Montefiore

Sipping margaritas with Richard Dawkins on the sideline of a Sri Lanka literary fest, a glorious Albania book tour and the sequel to ‘Sashenka’

Would I prefer to live in a country run by the Archbishop of Canterbury or by Richard Dawkins? I’ve just been at a literary festival in Sri Lanka with Professor Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist. He and his wife were delightful companions over margaritas at the Amangalla Hotel in the Galle Fort. I attended his lecture and he came to mine on Jerusalem. I ended by saying that since all three Abrahamic religions believe the Last Judgement will start on the Temple Mount, “We can be certain, whatever else happens, that everything will end in Jerusalem.”

Afterwards, Dawkins said: “I need to check – you were, of course, joking about the Last Judgement?” “Possibly,” I replied.

Sometimes in the Kulturkampf, a fashionable idea goes too far and becomes the very thing it means to despise. I think this is becoming the case with the new atheism. Initially, it sounded refreshingly daring but its very success, which owes much to Dawkins’ dramatic talents and brilliant intellect, has changed its tone. That’s why there has been the recent backlash against it, with grandees and columnists calling the new atheists “totalitarian” or “Stalinist”, which is silly.

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Of course, the atheists are not as bad as religious killers – blood-spattered Crusaders or Jihadi suicide bombers. Yet I do feel the new atheists have assumed a hectoring, bullying superiority that offends the British taste for fairness and moderation. They sound as joyless as a church of Puritans – with a strain of self-congratulation on their courage in taking on Christianity. Yet it takes no courage to confront Anglicanism, a sect so apologetic it barely dares speak its own name.

Historically, radical atheists started as reformers, then became persecutors before creating new religions themselves: Robespierre abolished Catholicism, then promoted the Supreme Being; Stalin persecuted Orthodoxy to enforce a quasi-Orthodox religion of Leninist-Stalinist sainthood around Lenin’s mausoleum.

Sharing much atheistic scepticism about religious hierarchies, I dislike religious fanatics of every stripe, particularly when they interfere in politics or tell me how to live. That’s why I am starting to resent the intolerance of our new atheists.

The leap of faith is by its nature impossible to prove or disprove. For those of us who accept scientific advances and Darwinian evolution, the atheists’ real argument is that religious people must be stupid and primitive. Are they really? This explanation ignores the need for faith in human souls: it can be good or bad but it is always there. Campaigning against it is simply campaigning against a set of basic human characteristics, some of the same ones that explain why we weep when we listen to music, why art touches us, why we fall in love so deeply that it is both blessing and sickness – indeed, all the mysterious, strange things that make life thrilling and joyful.

Religiosity can be as preposterous as other human needs but even the most secular people crave it. Whenever a cultural figure dies young, our atheistic society creates a new saint – Elvis Presley or Whitney Houston. And how funny that the late Christopher Hitchens, that wonderful sceptic, has become the very sort of secular saint – a media Mother Teresa – that he himself would have witheringly mocked.

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I love book tours because I love hotels, mysterious villages of strangers, but these journeys have glimmers of glamour tempered by weeks of anxious tedium. So nothing prepared me for the glories of my favourite book tour of all: Albania. First, the amazing Albanian publishing house Shtepia Botuese 55 managed, in two months, to translate five of my books into Albanian. Then I descended from the aircraft to be greeted by a mob of camera crews (the only time this has happened). And the Albanian prime minister, Dr Sali Berisha, a charming ex-heart surgeon who led the revolution against the despot Enver Hoxha, hosted my book launch. I have long been fascinated by King Zog (who ruled Albania from 1922-1939) and by Hoxha, who led the country for 40 years until his death in 1985. I told a journalist I might write a biography of Zog or Hoxha: “Sebag does Zog,” read the next day’s headlines.

Hoxha’s inner circle was known as The Block because he ruled from one closed block of Tirana; his hideous Villa Number One now contains nightclubs with names such as Villa Vogue. In 1981 the aged Hoxha had his premier, Mehmet Shehu, murdered across the road in Villa Thirty. It is still the prime minister’s residence, so when I had dinner with Berisha in Villa Thirty, I couldn’t resist asking to see the room where Shehu was murdered. “Of course,” he said, leading the dinner party upstairs to see the macabre bedroom. Such places can be fascinating – when I was researching Stalin, I stayed in several of his bedrooms in Abkhazia. In Berlin I stayed in sumptuous Soho House, formerly the offices of the East German Politburo.

I slept badly in the former, deliciously in the latter.

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Some readers of my book about Jerusalem say it’s the best argument against religion, some say it celebrates it. But for books or any brand to take off, one needs a strike of media lightning. There are brand-makers and brand-breakers: anything Oprah Winfrey likes, we buy; what the Duchess of Cambridge wears, we want. The other day I suddenly started receiving texts from American friends watching NBC’s Today show: Bill Clinton had chosen Jerusalem as his favourite book of the year. The book climbed 100 places on the US Amazon charts within two hours. Is Clinton the only politician who could do that?

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At Galle in Sri Lanka, the festival was launched by a brigade of bearded, kilted Sinhalese sailors playing bagpipes. I stayed in a decadent and beautiful hotel, Taprobane, an island 50m offshore, owned by Galle’s Maecenas, Geoffrey Dobbs, who created the literary festival. On arrival, I asked “Where’s the boat?”

“No boat, sir,” I was told. “You must wade or swim.”

“Are you joking?”

After a short tantrum, I waded to my new home, a mansion atop a rock built in the 1920s by a French aristo-mountebank. People staying there have included Prince Stash Klossowski de Rola, Paul Bowles, Arthur C Clarke and Kylie Minogue. One feels strange and debauched things once happened there.

It’s hard to stay dry when going ashore. Finally, I hung my trousers round my neck and headed for land, BlackBerry between my teeth. It was, I decided, the perfect place to start a novel.

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The new book will be a sequel to my 2008 novel Sashenka. Starring the same family, it will be set in 1945 at a school for Kremlin children in Stalin’s Moscow. In Sashenka, the grown-ups must save their children; now, the schoolchildren must save their parents. It’s about love, adultery, childhood, and is based on a true story.

While writing, a musical smorgasbord is essential. Recently, a friend invited us to Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden. I so dreaded those four hours, I considered pretending to be ill. On the night, I ended up adoring Wagner: when I heard Act III Scene 4, its incandescent heart-stopping beauty so overwhelmed me that I wept. Now I write listening to Wagner mixed with second world war Soviet “romances” and my new favourites, the astonishingly rousing David Guetta’s “Titanium” and the two greatest love songs of the 21st century, “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, and Adele’s “Someone Like You”. Music stimulates the soul. Like religion.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’ is in paperback (Orion, £9.99)

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