Amis in excelsis

Though no longer an enfant, Martin Amis still can be effortlessly terrible. But his creative writing students have nothing to fear. He'll be a great teacher, says his friend Christopher Hitchens
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The Independent Online

To those who didn't believe him about the appalling conditions of the British working class, Friedrich Engels would reply simply: "Have you seen Manchester?" When asked why he was resigning his officer's commission, Beau Brummell is said to have responded: "They were going to post me in ... Manchester." On the other hand, when I spoke to him yesterday, Martin Amis had just got off a train from Manchester and told me that "I've just been called 'Professor' for the first time in my life."

It seems such a short time since I saw him on a lovely surf-swept bay in Uruguay, living the life of which aspirant writers are sometimes said to dream. And now - Mancunian Mart. I mean, I know that there's supposed to be a football team (or is it soccer?) up there, and I know that he likes the game, but what about the commute? And I read that it was to be a chair in "creative writing" that he would occupy. As I always ask on my visits to American campuses: can I see the department where you teach the other kinds?

No, really, though, I think it's a corking idea. And I say this with due humility as someone who has already been one of his pupils. We used to work in the same magazine office, where he had to edit the copy of every contributor, from the highly distinguished Sir Victor Pritchett to that of a rather erratic film critic, and much other material in between.

I still don't know how to punctuate very well, but the proofs edited by Martin used to be kept by people as a model of how to correct a manuscript ("he's just ferociously good at it," as his then deputy, Julian Barnes, once said to me) and he once did me the service of going over a whole book of mine and making marginal notes. This document I will never sell, even if my children are starving.

Such exercises can be performed kindly or unkindly. Martin has in his time been called many things other than "Professor": things ranging from the inevitable and tiring "bad boy" to "the Mick Jagger of modern letters". One might therefore expect his frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, to be in evidence. But in my experience he is only superior with equals or seniors. It would not occur to him to be mean or sarcastic to a student or a younger writer (with the possible exception of the sort of snotty younger writer who needs to prove something - or anything - by trashing him).

If you read Zachary Leader's very moving and telling biography of Martin's father, you will swiftly see why this is. Until he was of university age himself, Martin had been pretty much a truant: kicking his heels on the King's Road and wasting his time (if you can call the sleepless, relentless pursuit of love a waste).

It was his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who noticed his talent and took him in hand and got him sent to a crammer in the nick of time. He didn't altogether waste his time there. Interviewed for Oxford, he was told by a sarcastic tutor: "You certainly know all the clichés, don't you?" "Well," responded Martin to roars of mirth, "you can't be too careful." I think they admitted him on the spot. There's no chance that he's forgotten what it felt like to be at the mercy of a condescending teacher, or what it felt like to realise that with one bit of bad luck he might have been diverted into another "stream". So, if you are reading this and wondering where to apply, I would put Manchester up there.

Leader's book also reminds us that old Kingsley put in some very solid time as a university teacher and lecturer, first in South Wales and then - but only after the success of Lucky Jim - in Cambridge. Not only was he a devoted and popular instructor, who had students round for meals and drinks and corrected them very firmly but very humorously, but after plying the same trade across the Atlantic in Princeton he felt a novel coming on. The result was One Fat Englishman.

Of course, Lucky Jim is a novel of the academy as well. (One of the dons at Kingsley's Cambridge college couldn't see the joke of Jim Dixon's doomed thesis on medieval shipbuilding techniques: "Fellow had a perfectly good subject...") But with the invention of "Budweiser University" Amis helped found a genre of Anglo-American fiction that famously includes work by Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. I feel it's rather to the credit of Manchester that they are willing to run the same risk: a campus fiction by someone who may no longer be an enfant, but who still has the effortless power to be terrible.

Since Martin can quote quite large paragraphs of prose, and from Dickens and Nabokov at that, and since he can spot a cliché or a repetition or a dangling participle at 50 paces, and since his reviews of dunces and bores have made strong men and women quail, I suppose I can see what all the fuss is about.

But a week or so ago in New York, where he was doing his latest book tour, I got a call from a lady journalist who was near-petrified about interviewing him. How was she to avoid feeling stupid, and what was my advice? I told her that I declined her appeal. "You will find that it goes swimmingly," I wrote in an email. "Just please write and tell me that it did."

She replied within a day, speaking tenderly of his courtesy and consideration. I almost wrote to him to say "don't over-do it. People ought to be scared of you at least a bit." But I didn't. He knows that writing and reading are frightening enough already, and if you know that much then you will flourish in his class, or any other.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for 'Vanity Fair'