Walking down Oxford High Street, I try to think of some witty lines to break the ice with Hugo Rifkind in our interview. ‘The Times’ columnist has entertained and thought-provoked in equal measure through his prolific writings, be it foreign affairs or the comedy column. I eventually admitted defeat, trying to impress Hugo Rifkind with my wit seems like a self-defeating idea. One would assume a columnist known for his curiosity and wit would not be so easily impressed by my A-Level-English-Literature-level wit.
My neurosis was soon replaced by my profuse apology to Hugo Rifkind for managing to walk right past him, miss him and eventually end up asking a person nearby if they had seen him. He is one of the most unassuming presences that I have encountered (or missed to encounter). He friendly laughs it off and easygoingly asks about the logistics of the interview.
We proceed to set up for the interview. His disarming charm and easy conversation soon led us to an innocuous gossip session about Oxford. The thaw takes place.
I ask about his time in Cambridge reading philosophy and if it inspired him to go into journalism. He chuckles lightly and described it as ‘baffling’. ‘I was completely unaffected to go into journalism and [the degree] was probably utterly useless. But it was probably useful in a journalistic way, in the sense that you learn to process statements – what people say and what they really mean. But it didn’t lead directly to journalism. It took me a few years of wandering around after undergraduate before I became a journalist.’ He gives a slightly mischievous grin.
‘The plan was to write novels. I spent a couple of years backpacking and a couple of years working part-time whilst trying to write novels. I didn’t get published, which was fair. But anyways, then I wound up working for a kind of gossip news website, which gradually led to my features in “The Times”.’
Being a PPE student, I try again to see if there is any link between his past study and his current journalistic projects. I point to his recent piece on the luxury of anonymity, where he alluded to Plato’s ‘Republic’ in the introduction. He explains it was for ‘LUUX’, the luxury comfort wing of ‘The Times’. ‘The editor is brilliant, she used to edit ‘Tatler’. She said “I want you to write about philosophy and on this subject.” And I said that I’d studied philosophy and this is not exactly philosophy. I thought this would be called philosophy by non-philosophers and simply rubbish by those who actually study philosophy. She responded that she didn’t care and asked me to write it anyways. And it does say ‘Philosophy Column’ on the top when you see it.’ His self-deprecating charm offensive continues.
I ask about what areas he is interested in as a journalist. ‘I’m lucky. I get to write about everything. I was a features writer to start with, where you cover politics broadly. An awful lot of what I write is about politics, but not all of it. This week, for example, I wrote my Monday column, which is about politics, on instability in Israel and then I spent my Tuesday in Barcelona, on an ethical pornography set. So that’s my features this week – sort of interviews/porn feature. They’re very interesting.’ He later explained that it was an all-female pornography set. And his job was to follow all the cast members and people on set to observe how they work and ask questions. ‘It was the only time when I had to pretend to know way more about porn or the female body than I actually did.’ Hugo’s self-deprecating and soft-spoken demeanour means that even when he delivers a line as quick-witted as this, one doesn’t fully absorb the humour until moments later. Then one chuckles.
I ask about his years as a foreign commentator. ‘By virtue of when it was, I wrote an awful lot about Syria. Quite a lot about Afghanistan. The Middle East was most of it. I was given far too much space when after a while all I could express was just “erh”. It was kind of the defining conflict of our age where we still haven’t really gone anywhere.’
The subject of the refugee crisis inevitably comes up. ‘I visited a refugee camp in Jordan at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, when the camp was just beginning to fill up. And people were talking about their experience in Syria. It was horrendous. I was always hearing stories of war slaughter.’ He sighs and shrugs.
I ask if he sees any hope in the situation in Syria. He looks slightly startled and says ‘No.’ I try to inject a dosage of optimism by saying Jordan is taking in a lot of refugees. He concurs, ‘Indeed. Half of Jordan is refugees. And they can’t cope. It’s a difficult political situation as the Americans have completely washed their hands off the refugees. There used to be hope that there might be an Alawite state around Damascus and perhaps Iraq and then various other bits for other ethnicities. But now, with Russian help, it seems like Assad is soon gonna take back all of Syria.’
I wonder if the prospect of Assad taking back control of Syria bodes well for the refugees in the sense that there could be more stability at home for them to return. He disagrees. ‘I don’t think so because the refugees are largely not his people. His people are the wealthy Alawite people who have largely stayed put. Those refugees are part of the Syria population that were struggling under his authoritarian rule even in peacetime before. So it’s likely that the Syrian diaspora in the Middle East is gonna be there for generations.’
I ask if growing up with Sir Malcolm Rifkind as father, who served as Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary amongst other Cabinet posts, fostered his interest in politics and foreign affairs. He professes that politics was never actually discussed at home – which could make sense, given the father and son’s differing opinions on many topics.
I walk Hugo to the train station. A university friend of mine runs into us on the way and, in the dark, mistakes Hugo as an Oxford student. After exchanging names, he enthusiastically enquires which college Hugo goes to. Hugo gently says he is not a student here and went to Emmanuel in Cambridge. My friend notices nothing in particular and goes his way. Perhaps it’s the ability to really talk with people on an equal level that helps produce quality journalism. After all, he spent weeks on the road in Scotland asking people what was going on in the general election and how they felt about the future of the Union.