Sarah Sands: It's a great plot: two novelists under one roof

When writers live together there's a race to plunder the family archive for ideas
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The Independent Online

At last week's launch party for Standpoint, the right wing intellectual magazine, I said to Marigold Johnson, wife of Paul Johnson and mother of the magazine's editor Daniel Johnson, that she must be proud of her son (an opening line that works with 99.9 per cent of mothers on this planet). Marigold smiled prettily and referred to a letter her husband had written to Daniel to commemorate the occasion. She had been touched and amused by its Victorian formality and its bashfulness about mentioning the magazine itself.

It made me wonder about dynastic pride. If a family member is in the same area of public life, there is both celebration and comparison. I have been trying to decode Isabel Fonseca's description of her husband's response to her first novel, Attachment. Her husband is Martin Amis. She says that he was " circumspect at first", although he was much more positive once she had done " re-drafting", presumably to his specifications. She adds endearingly that it isn't really her husband's kind of book: he prefers non-fiction. Which may mean that he can only stomach his own fiction.

What were Martin Amis's initial reservations? We can surmise that 1) he thought his wife's novel was no good; 2) he saw an unflattering portrait of himself; 3) he thought the novel was good, but could not bring himself to praise it – instead he offered advice about redrafting; 4) he saw it as a betrayal of Fonseca's wifely duties.

The theme of the novel, which did not seem to interest Martin especially, was of a woman engulfed by her husband's greater status. The heroine is a "clever woman ... living through her husband". One turns to Martin Amis, beady-eyed, for evidence that he is repeating the sins of his father. Kingsley Amis is alleged to have had a brusque response to the literary talents of his son. He accused Martin of "breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself". After that he showed no sign of reading his son's works.

Did Martin Amis experience the same irritation at his wife's stylistic difference? Did he resent her attempt, in some way, to usurp him as the novelist of the family, the king of the castle? She ends her interview with The Independent on Sunday on a graceful note. "Martin Amis is the senior statesman as a writer in our household." You had better remember it.

The trouble with having too many novelists swimming in the same pool is that you exhaust your material pretty quickly. I remember John Mortimer complaining, as a technician rather than a husband, about his first wife, Penelope, for writing novels about their family life, and using up precious anecdotes.

Writing partnerships do exist – Richard Holmes and Rose Tremain, Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd – but they tend to follow different disciplines. You can have novelists and biographers or novelists and poets. But can you have two novelists, mining the same experiences, without literary claustrophobia?

A change in the weather fixes most things

Gordon Brown complains that global forces are against him – oil, shortage of credit, terrorism. I think the trouble is elemental forces. If the rain would just ease up we would have a different view of life. Brown's entire premiership seems to have taken place under dark skies.

It is easier to be poorer if the sun is out, and the British try to look on the bright side. We all promised to go camping as a green alternative to going abroad; last weekend in Hay gave a foretaste of what that will be like.

We are even reconciled to a Euro 2008 without England playing. Just a few beers and some sunshine, and summer will be fine.

How to turn an emo into a fitness fanatic

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the dreariness of emos. I thought song titles such as "Dead!" or "Cancer!" were not very life-enhancing. US band Adam and Andrew have a witty take: "When I get depressed I cut my wrists in every direction/ Hearing songs about getting dumped gives me an erection." The emos, forceful, even if they look as if they live in coffins, have railed against anti-emoism, and yesterday they went on a march.

Emo culture is self-dramatising and self-pitying. If we tell them they are wonderful, they will give up white skins and dark clothes and take up hockey.

Style does not start and end in Paris

I felt some sympathy for the "eastern bloc" of the Eurovision Song Contest. Terry Wogan's Rumsfeldian allegation that old Europe was now at a disadvantage from new Europe held a hint of superciliousness. I preferred the crazed dolls of Bosnia Herzegovina to our bland entry.

The other week, I attended a European conference of Reader's Digest editors, including those from the newest editions in Croatia, Slovenia and Romania. The Slovenian editor was a knock-out former fashion editor who carried the hopes of her nation in her wardrobe. When the suave French editor listed the kind of people appearing in his magazine – Carla Bruni, Carol Bouquet, Christine Ockrent – the Slovenian editor merely arched an eyebrow. When we talked over dinner of the best places for weekend breaks she backed Istanbul or Croatia over Paris or Rome. She asked, gaily and challengingly, why I had never bothered with the beauty of Kurdistan.

Perhaps I imagined the slight melancholy of post-Communist countries – although I noticed that editors from those countries were less interested than the Western editors in talking of politicians or the armed forces, and I noticed their honesty and wit.

The designer at our conference pointed out that one visual national difference lay in the character of smiles. The smiles on the American magazine covers translated oddly in other countries. They were too broad and open. I suggested that the British smile was more complicated. The Russian editor rolled her eyes humorously and said that I should see the Russian smile. As happens at many international gatherings, including Eurovision, the delight is in the distinctive, sometimes baffling, characters of the member countries rather than the amorphous splodge of the whole.

Sarah Sands is editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest UK

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