May 27, 2021 • 59M

Cosmopolitanism in the 21st Century

A conversation with Simon Kuper about life in Paris, building bridges across cultures, family nomadism, football economics and "The Happy Traitor"

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For this new episode of the Building Bridges podcast, I’m happy to share my interview with Simon Kuper, a British author, Financial Times columnist, and cosmopolitan intellectual whose latest book The Happy Traitor deals with the story of a British spy, George Blake, who defected to the Soviet Union.

Simon lives in Paris but is about to move to Spain with his family for a new experience of cultural immersion. We talked about building bridges across cultures, his multicultural life and identity, multilingualism, mobility… and a few other fascinating subjects (among which football).

Many years ago, he moved from London to Paris surreptitiously because he thought his life had become “too comfortable” and he needed a bit of foreignness to make things more challenging. Thus he became a working-from-home pioneer, paving the way for future generations of mobile workers in search of foreign adventures.

Born in Uganda, raised in the Netherlands, educated in the UK, Kuper is convinced there’s no point in learning a language badly and sticking to superficiality. Instead you should go for excellence:

If you do learn a language, go for excellence. If you have children, immerse them in it from birth. Wall Streeters sending their kids to Mandarin-speaking preschools may be hilarious, but they are choosing the most efficient route (…) A multilingual person can be multiple people, inhabiting multiple worlds. As the linguist Nick Evans wrote, “we study other languages because we cannot live enough lives. It’s a multiplier of our lives.”

Incredibly productive during the pandemic, he has worked on multiple books. His latest book The Happy Traitor was published a few months ago. It deals with George Blake, a one-man Netflix series, whose life tracked many of the dramas of the 20th century”:

When the 98-year-old double agent George Blake died in Moscow on Boxing Day, my biography of him was long since ready. (…) A Briton raised in the Netherlands, he was a teenage courier in the Dutch resistance, joined the British secret services, converted to communism while a prisoner in North Korea and became a spy for the KGB. He then sent dozens of agents working for Britain to their deaths. His crime so shocked Britain that when he was finally unmasked, in 1961, he was given the longest sentence in the country’s modern history — only to escape in a jailbreak so spectacular that Alfred Hitchcock spent his final decade trying to turn it into a film.

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  • Also Building Bridges is part of a network of Substack newsletters, which you may want to discover: there’s my Laetitia@Work (about the future of work, with a feminist perspective), and Nicolas’s Colin European Straits (about the Entrepreneurial Age, viewed from Europe).

(Credit: Franz Liszt, Angelus ! Prière Aux Anges Gardiens—extrait du disque Miroirs de Jonas Vitaud, NoMadMusic.)