Audience swoons as Amis puffs

Cheltenham Literary Festival sponsored by The Independent
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Martin Amis took out a cigarette paper, loaded it with tobacco, struck a match and began. The hall, filled with literature-lovers, who had never seen someone smoke on stage before, were in awe.

From The Rachel Papers to the latest offering, Night Train, everyone had their favourites. Although Night Train, the tricky new novel about an American homicide detective, written, no less, in the first person female, was the one they had come to hear.

And they weren't disappointed, he seduced them with a reading, explaining the colloquialisms as he went, willing them to believe in her. But how, they wanted to know, had a straight, middle-class Englishman, who had fathered four children, come to write a book where he had mentally transplanted himself into the opposite sex?

He had been prodded into it, by his subconscious, as with all his novels, and simply couldn't resist. "I thought to myself," he elaborated, "After I've finished my tea, I'm going to go upstairs to my study and become a woman. And I did."

The process of writing, of being a novelist, spending time locked away for hours on end, was what keeps him sane, he claimed. "I don't know how you can bear not to be a novelist," he opined to the audience. It was the way he made sense of the world. It was also virtually a family business, except that his father, Kingsley, never encouraged him, something for which Martin was eternally grateful. "I have seen famous fathers pushing their sons to achieve, and essentially I think it says more about the father's ego than anything else. It's wrong."

Kingsley, who gave up reading Martin's books because he didn't like his style, "except he admired Time's Arrow - well, he read it at least - would have bristled at the idea but his son believes they are alike. As one, almost.

"I think that if our birthdays had been transferred I would have written his novels and he would have written mine. Except that he also wrote poetry, which I rarely do. I have had two poems published, but I don't really have the patience for poetry. To concentrate a whole afternoon on a line- break is just not me. I think, I say to myself, that's not a poem, that's a paragraph."

The praise wasn't just reserved for his father, however. Martin also insisted that the audience rush out and buy a novel entitled Underworld by an American writer called Don DeLillo, a writer he feels sure is going to be the Next Big American novelist. And what of the other young Amises coming through? Martin had been in a bookshop recently with his 10-year- old son Jacob, and they had paused by a shelf full of his work. "He announced to me that if he were to become a novelist, he wasn't planning to write the kind of things that I wrote. I said, `Oh, so what will you write, then?' He pause, before he answered, and then said, `Teenage Horror'. This is now a term that has entered our family language and will probably come in particularly handy when he and his brother get a little older."

It is certainly a term that came to mind later when we were introduced to the art historian Sir Roy Strong, and reminded that he was at school with Norman Tebbit. A horror for any teenager, yet the amusing Sir Roy seems to have survived. He had come to Cheltenham to read extracts from his infamous diaries, taking as his theme, Extraordinary Women. From Lady Diana Cooper to Diana, Princess of Wales, the man who revolutionised our national art institutions, and consumed a lot of posh dinners along the way, was as indiscreet and charming as ever.

When he first met Margaret Thatcher, he reminisced, she wittered on to him about her Worcester porcelain collection. "It was really the only thing she was interested in. So when she became Prime Minister, we sent a truck-load of the stuff round. Dreadful, really, but she turned out to be a great ally."