Two things are constant in the public career of the writer Martin Amis. One, he has a genius for making provocative remarks about non-literary matters. Two, he has never learned to smile for the camera.
When he was young, his appraising stare was an index of his coolness; more recently, it’s become a scowl of dislike and suspicion. The face that looks out from the pages of the latest Radio Times is a study of belligerent defensiveness, as if its owner has just upended a pint over a drunken sailor’s crotch and is waiting, unenthusiastically, to be attacked.
This is odd, because his words in the Radio Times seem not to warrant such an attitude. A series of reflections taken from Martin Amis’s England, a documentary that will be broadcast tomorrow night, they’re characteristically thoughtful, funny, confiding and strangely old-fashioned. He suggests that the “vast gulf” between public and state schools used to be a class gulf and is now a money gulf, which will not be news to a generation of Etonians who have learned to sneer at moneyed “oiks”. He distrusts “the emotions of religion and war” that invade him when watching football. He tells a mildly shocking story about his father Kingsley’s erotic fantasies about HM the Queen and warns, “It is nearing the end of the road, the monarchy” but goes on, in apparent contradiction, “It’s connected with our love of Upstairs, Downstairs, those country-house dramas, it’s nostalgia for that class society.” It’s pretty harmless stuff. Then, as if unable to stop himself, he mentions “female fantasies of being ravished. I talked to women about this and they said: it is a good fantasy, especially when you’re young, because if you enjoy it, it’s not your fault”.
It wasn’t much but it was enough for people to jump on Amis, as they like to do. You could hear female hackles rise across the nation and the Twittersphere. In The Guardian, Zoe Williams took 1,000 words to ask if anyone actually cared about his views (and took him to task for using the word “ravish”, calling it “a deliberate attempt to drain the act of violation of its verbal power”). In the 600-odd below-the-line comments on her piece, the prevailing tone was set by the shortest: “Sod off Amis!”
In becoming, since 2010, a self-appointed commentator on the State of the British Nation, Amis has turned into the nation’s whipping boy. He seems to court trouble, without having an identifiable political allegiance. He can seem a choleric conservative like his father, or an anti-establishment contrarian like his late best friend Christopher Hitchens. He is riskily candid about matters of race, class and religion. He takes personal gripes (age, mortality) and turns them into universal complaints (like entropy, a favourite topic). He has a genius for winding people up.
He pops up around publication time to grant interviews and deliver wearily eloquent aperçus about British life. Just before the launch of The Pregnant Widow in 2010, he warned that “a sort of civil war between old and young” would result from the growing numbers of elderly; he advocated the installation of “a booth on every [street] corner, where you could get a martini and medal”. There was uproar. Amis was denounced in the Daily Mail by anti-euthanasia spokesmen who vowed, “We would resist any attempts to put these death booths on the streets of this country.”
More seriously, his views about Islam since 9/11 have provoked denunciation. In 2006, interviewed by The Times, he said, “There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it – to say the Muslim community ought to suffer until they get their house in order,” with measures such as “deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip searching people who look like they are from the Middle East, Pakistan, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children”. He was attacked by Terry Eagleton, the Marxist historian and a colleague of Amis at Manchester University. In the introduction to a book, Eagleton called him a “British National Party thug”. Amis is no thug. He’s become a troublemaker almost by default, his early success as a brilliant stylist gradually eclipsed by his desire to be taken seriously as a thinker on a global scale.
He was born in Swansea in 1949, the middle of three children. His grandfather was a clerk for Colman’s mustard, a racist and “mildly, jokily anti-Semitic”; his father Kingsley was a university lecturer who became a distinguished novelist, a knight and a byword in splenetic conservatism. His mother Hilly Bardwell was a civil servant’s daughter. Martin attended several schools in Wales, Cambridge, New Jersey and London, but read nothing but comics until he discovered Jane Austen. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his rackety, directionless teens are memorably evoked in his fine autobiography, Experience. He left Oxford with a congratulatory first in English in 1971, and set to work on The Rachel Papers. It won the Somerset Maugham Prize.
His early novels Dead Babies and Success were coruscating displays of prose, heftily influenced by Nabokov, Joyce and Updike, and featured contrasting twosomes: one short, unattractive, unsuccessful pimply loser and one tall, rangy, rich boudoir swordsman. They were, Amis implied, the way he saw himself and the way the world saw him.
Money (1984) was deemed by William Boyd the best novel of the 1980s, a yelping satire on greed starring John Self as an ad man devouring food, drink, porn and the trappings of success as he jets across the Atlantic. Amis was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1991 for Time’s Arrow, the life of a Nazi concentration camp doctor narrated back-to-front to make the unspeakable seem positive.
In 1995, Amis’s life exploded. He left his wife, Antonia, and their two sons and married Isabel Fonseca. He left his agent, Pat Kavanagh, the wife of his close friend Julian Barnes (the men didn’t speak for years), to take up with the US agent Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie. Wylie demanded an unheard-of £500,000 advance on Amis’s next book, The Information – it was, Amis explained, to pay for a vital dental operation. This became a running joke in the media, and Amis’s reputation took a considerable downturn.
In 2010, now a grandfather, Amis bought a house in Brooklyn and, two years later, moved house from London’s Camden Town. The move coincided with publication of another controversial novel, Lionel Asbo. It was, or seemed, his two-fingered farewell salute to a country which had fallen out of love with him. Lionel Asbo was a deeply horrible modern John Bull, a thick but enterprising, “slab-like”, violent, racist debt-collector and career criminal living in a tower block with his attack dogs; his life changes when he wins £140m on the lottery, embraces the high life and becomes a darling of the press.
Amis loves writing about a modern Britain of reality TV, celebrity boob jobs, yobs, vulgarity, rioting and philistine vacuity. He loves the vitality of vice and stupidity. He just doesn’t want to live in it any more. He sees Britain as having declined from an imperial power to “a second- or even third-echelon state”. Perhaps that’s why he’s gone to live in America, a bona fide superpower, for all its fatuity and lack of nuance. Is it surprising that he’s moved, every year or so, to test the water in his home country? Or that his former neighbours wish he’d keep his views to himself? Or that he looks so defensive?
Life In Brief
Born: 25 August, 1949 in Swansea
Family: His father was the novelist KIngsley Amis, his mother Hilary Bardwell. They divorced when Amis was 12. Amis has been married twice and is the father of five children. His second wife is the writer Isabel Fonseca
Education: Attended schools in Swansea and Cambridge before graduating with a First in English from Oxford
Career: The author of 13 novels, he has also written screenplays and large quantities of non-fiction