A word with Peter Adamson
How did the idea of New Internationalist (NI) magazine first arise?
At the time, we were campaigning door-to-door in British universities to ask students to give one per cent of their income to organizations such as Oxfam. Thousands of doorstep conversations showed us that nearly all students, including ourselves, knew next to nothing about world poverty.
As we made the transition to understanding poverty as a political rather than a charitable issue, we saw that we needed to work not just for donations but for more understanding of the causes of malnutrition, ill-health and illiteracy. That was the springboard for the NI.
If you had been given a glimpse then of the magazine in 2018, do you think you would have been pleased by its longevity or distressed that the core world problems it deals with are still so similar more than four decades later?
The optimists gave it six months, so I would have been delighted to be answering questions in its pages nearly half a century later. But I would certainly have been disappointed to see poverty on today’s scale after 50 years of increasing capacity. Progress has been enormous, but so uneven – and I think the primary measure of progress from now on should be ‘what happens to the poorest 20 per cent’.
You left the NI to work closely with the Executive Director of UNICEF, James P Grant, through the 1980s until his death in 1995. What was it like to go from campaigning journalism to being at the heart of a UN organization?
My experience with UNICEF was not typical. Jim Grant was a one-off. So unbureaucratic. So idealistically motivated. So driven to bring about big changes for the world’s poorest children. So determined, in particular, to halve child deaths in the world by lifting the immunization rate from 20 per cent to 80 per cent. So it was a great privilege to work with him and many of those whom he enlisted in that cause.
Even so, I had misgivings about leaving the ‘real struggle’ – exchanging campaigning on political and economic issues for vaccines and sachets of oral rehydration salts. But complexity can itself be a kind of bolthole, an excuse for a kind of hand-wringing paralysis. And there was no denying the urgent, terrible injustice of millions upon millions of children dying every year – and having their normal physical and mental growth undermined – when the world had the means to prevent it at so very little cost.
These things may be symptoms, but they are also causes in that they help perpetuate poverty and powerlessness.
Why did you start writing fiction and what can it achieve that journalism cannot?
Much of my writing has been about people en masse. As one of my characters says, ‘the poor always have too many noughts on the end’. Fiction, on the other hand, is about individuals and concerns itself with the intimate details and dilemmas of their lives. My first novel, Facing out to Sea, was a conscious attempt to write in this different way about one family living in a Colombo slum.
Your new novel The Kennedy Moment seems in some ways to bring together all the strands of your life.
It concerns many of the same issues, but I also set myself the challenge of writing a full-on page-turner with interesting characters and a strong, suspenseful plot. But a thriller about a serious issue is a big ask and only readers will know if I came close.