Olympic opening ceremony was first and only time novelist had seen 'Britishness' celebrated, he tells Scotland's first minister
The Booker prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan has rejected any notion that he is a British writer, insisting instead that English and Scottish writers are culturally different and have distinctive roots and ways of writing.
McEwan said he believed the "strange and rather heady" celebration of Britishness captured by Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the Olympic Games – "which I have to say I was completely obsessed by" – was the first experience of his life where a concept of Britishness was being celebrated.
In a rare public discussion with Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, at the Edinburgh international book festival, McEwan said he believed separate national literary cultures in the British isles had survived the act of union between England and Scotland three centuries ago.
Interviewed by Salmond about his new novel, Sweet Tooth, the writer recalled he had told Salmond that he disputed his label as a British novelist when the politician gave a speech at the Guardian offices in January on his vision for Britain if Scotland won independence.
"I put it to you that there are no British poets, there are no British novelists," McEwan said. "I have heard myself described as one, but I think really I'm an English novelist; there are Scottish poets and Scottish novelists."
Stressing later that he does not use the word "provincial" in a pejorative sense, he added: "It struck me this is where poetry and football coalesce; Olympics apart, we've kept our football traditions separate, too.
"As regards literary culture, it fascinates me that it has been so resilient to the union. For example, when TS Eliot wanted to become poet in these lands, it wasn't as an English poet, it was an Anglian poet he wanted to be. So one thought that strikes me, particularly with a novel, this reinforces my suspicion that all novels are provincial and all the great novels are very rooted in a particular time and place.
"So whether it's Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, they're specific to a time and place; through that by accident there arises a kind of mist. There are universal values but they're not actually the things that the novelist is concentrating on.
"It's here and now, it's the specifics of Bovary's life or Karenina's wedding; it's that specificity."
Pressed by Salmond on how far Sweet Tooth was about his own early literary life, McEwan said the novel, his 20th, had partly autobiographical elements. It drew on some of his early unpublished writing and borrowed, but then twisted, incidents from his own life. However, unlike one of its main characters, a young novelist called Tom Haley, he had never been seduced by a glamorous female spy.
McEwan said he was surprised to discover Salmond was a fan of the English poet Philip Larkin and the "quintessentially Welsh" poet RS Thomas.
Salmond, the Scottish National party's leader, said he regarded Britishness as a component of a multilayered Scottish identity, as with Irish or perhaps an Indian sub-continental identity.
It was "precisely because they're offering a distinctive, authentic note that you're attracted to them, surely," Salmond said.
The novelist said: "I suppose I was surprised somewhat by the Olympics. And I think it was about the first time in my lifetime that I was aware people were celebrating Britishness as opposed to something more local. When we talk of culture, and this comes back to what I was saying earlier, we do divide.
"And the act of union has not been an act of union of literary cultures and, for the reasons I mentioned before, there are very strong reasons for that. Imagination has a specific quality tied to landscape and locale, to community, to neighbourhoods. Even the rise of the modernist novel with its certain internationalist flavour, well look at Ulysses [by James Joyce]: what could be more local and provincial as it were and specific to a place and time than that, but it's the modernist bible, the central text."