An Englishman in New York
Martin Amis discusses living abroad, class, terrorism, Thatcher, family and the writing life
When Baroness Thatcher died in March, the BBC asked Martin Amis to discuss her legacy with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. If Paxman has evolved into England’s firm but benevolent schoolmaster, then Amis has always been the bright boy on the verge of expulsion; hair tousled, attitude defiant and tie slightly askew.
Effortlessly, he brushes the establishment figures up the wrong way. It hasn’t helped that he has the most luscious pout of any Englishman since Mick Jagger and that he possesses, not only the lightly cutting wit of his father Kingsley, but his work ethic: old England has been reading and listening to the Amis men for over 60 years.
On Newsnight, he was relatively moderate and polite but still made Charles Moore, his fellow guest, former editor of the Telegraph and Thatcher’s biographer, bristle. At one stage, they had a brief feud on the question of Thatcher’s sex appeal (Moore smitten, Amis not so much) but even before that, Moore had declared that “posh people like Martin” couldn’t possibly understand the appeal of Thatcher. Amis sat impassively in his seat in a New York studio. It was more of the usual from his countrymen.
“I miss the people,” Amis said fondly when asked about England one afternoon last week. “And I have grown up sons [Louis and Jacob] living there. I miss them. The English are generous and tolerant – and so are Americans – but the English are witty. Americans aren’t witty.
“People are friendly here but they don’t sort of make you laugh. And it seems as if everyone you meet in England has something funny to say. But the main thing that delights and surprises me here is the weather. It frees up the spirit a lot because you are not fighting the weather as you do in England.
“In my novel Money, John Self does actually fight the weather with rather drunken karate kicks and that, but that was just sort of dramatising what everyone is feeling. The last winter I spent in London was . . . hideous.”
We are in the back garden of his Brooklyn home in Cobble Hill, a serene incarnation of London’s Primrose Hill but with full blue May skies, noon-time sunshine and even a backdrop of birdsong which seems set to a perfect volume.
He has lived here with his wife, writer Isabel Fonseca and their two daughters, Fernanda and Clio, for almost two years. We hear kids playing in the schoolyard, a postman in shorts actually whistles as he does his rounds along the shaded streets of stately brownstones for which the borough is famous. There is no litter anywhere.
When he opens the front door at the appointed hour, Amis already has the water boiling, although in a saucepan rather than an electric kettle: he points out that the American electrical supply just doesn’t boil kettles the way we are used to.
He sits and nods at the recollection of his most recent Newsnight appearance but winces a little when asked if there is substance in Moore’s assertion that he is, in fact, posh.
“Ahh; I was tremendously conscious of class growing up. It was impossible not to be. It is true that when Thatcher came in, the class eyeball-to-eyeball was intense – you felt hostility from below and condescension from above. And it was really unpleasant. I said to my father once: are we nouveau riche? And he said, ‘Well, very nouveau and not at all riche.’ But he also said that we are not in the class system because we are bohemian. Sort of intelligentsia, he said, as well. I said that to my boy when he was 12 and he said, ‘Oh, am I an intellectual?’
“But, you know, my father’s father was a clerk at Colman’s mustard. He was genteel, slightly déclassé. My great-grandparents would have had maids but he certainly wasn’t in that league.
“I went to state schools up until the age of 15. So I’m certainly not posh. I once did a quiz on that very subject: Are You Posh? And I was very up on it all. I knew you said ‘sofa’ and not ‘couch’, ‘lavatory’ and not ‘toilet’. The last one was what would you call your sons? A: Sebastian, Montague and, you know, Quentin, that sort of thing. B: Henry, George, David. I was about to tick that one. Then the last one was Terry, Keith and Martin. So it didn’t matter what I put down, did it?”
The riff is typical of Amis – free form and dusted with humour and energetic and referencing his touchstones – in this case, his obsession with names. In that same Newsnight interview, he credited Thatcher with opening political doors and filling Downing Street with “the Normans and Keiths and Cecils who wouldn’t otherwise have got in”.
He has written and spoken about his father Kingsley, never flinching from his parental and ideological flaws nor losing his admiration for his writing or his humour. (Typical Amis father-son exchange: “Dad, what’s it like being mildly anti-Semitic?” “Well, it’s very mild, as you say.”)
Amis channels many of his literary views through Vladimir Nabokov, smokes with panache (although more sparingly now) and most of all sticks to his guns about whatever he thinks. His decision to move to New York was based on pragmatism and emotion: Fonseca’s parents live in the city and were in declining health. Also, his great friend, writer and critic Christopher Hitchens, had at the time just been diagnosed with cancer and was living in the States.
Amis’s devotion to Hitchens, who died close to Christmas 2011, remains undiminished. But despite all that, his departure was treated as the most infamous quitting of England since Edward VIII decided he had better things to do than inherit the throne.
“It was very odd because I made quite an effort to stress that it was all just family stuff, plus Hitchens. It just didn’t work: they wanted to think I was quitting England because I hated it. And that I was fleeing Fleet Street – skulking onto a plane to get away. Absolute rubbish!
“It is not important but it is interesting to see that they were determined to portray it that way. It shows that insecurity about what England is. And I just have a very unnatural relationship with the press and establishment in England. I am convinced it is to do with my father: it is the taint of heredity in my case.”
Amis admits that the family surname probably did no harm when he published his first novel, The Rachel Papers in 1974. His crime, he feels, was that he didn’t have the good manners to fade away afterwards. Instead, he produced a startlingly original body of fiction and criticism and essays over the past three decades. His work has been both lauded and mercilessly torn asunder. “They feel free to say absolutely anything,” he says. “In a way that is not true of others.”
The publication of his loosely termed London trilogy – Money, London Fields and The Information – established his tone and favourite themes; squiffy people engaged in sordid and outlandish pursuits in late 20th century London and New York, lit with humour and Amis’s obsession with detail and freshness in language.
In 1991, he was on the Booker prize shortlist for Time’s Arrow but, as he wryly points out, he has been awarded no literary prize since he won the Somerset Maugham award 40 years ago.
With Hitchens, he formed an unofficial double-act which spanned four decades: they were both natural talkers, thinkers, drinkers and smokers and gifted with beautiful speaking voices. They seemed as much a response to Thatcherite England as the formation of the Smiths or the enduring success of Withnail and I. “You are a brilliant hater,” Germaine Greer tells Amis – flatteringly – in a television interview that coincided with the publication of Money. “With an eye for what is grotesque.”
The same eye had him in the dock with the publication of his most recent novel, Lionel Asbo, a highly humorous and even affectionate dive into the carry-on in his latest dystopia, the suburb of Diston whose most raffish inhabitant won £140 million in the lottery.
The novel is dedicated to Hitchens and its subtitle is State of England, which was quickly interpreted as yet another air strike on Blighty by the author – written from New bloody York, no less. (“Do you like England?” Paxman demands in another Newsnight interview on the publication of the book. “Do you think England is above reproach?” Amis replies).
Amis is almost as famous in New York: a throwaway remark he made about the ubiquity of “hipsters” in Brooklyn was picked up and repackaged as an attack on that daft movement. Amis is generally fond of America but, like most people, he is taken aback by the unpredictable flaring of extreme violence.
“I thought [what happened in Boston] was an example of what John Gray predicted; anomic terrorism. This is a serious thing – if you are pissed off and you feel your roots are gone and you are play-acting in your new country . . . the idea that what you do is blow people’s legs off and kill them because you feel that way is truly disgusting. I have a journalist friend who said that the police got a lot of praise but in fact made three or four huge errors.
“I was glad it was so quick.The idea you drift off into the crowd and get stoned with your friends that night. The idea that you are not going to get caught; it put a nail in that. But it didn’t disturb me as much as Sandy Hook [the town in Connecticut] did. What happened there was one of the worst things in the history of the world. He decapitated 20 children with rapid fire, blew their heads off. What that school must have looked like. And a few weeks later, people sort of . . . shrugged.”
Amis’s next novel, which addresses the Holocaust, is due to be published in the autumn. He is not sure for how much longer he will continue writing and admires writers whose instinct tells them it is time to stop. Philip Roth’s retirement, he says, leaves American literature “grieving for its Jews” while his compatriot Jim Crace exited the stage last year. “He said he would learn French and travel,” Amis murmurs approvingly. “But then Herman Wouk has just published a book at 97. Wouldn’t mind seeing what that’s like,” he laughs.
“As Nabokov said, writers die twice. It is the price you have to pay for a very nice life. You have to sort of watch yourself. Because writing is the best of you.”
Martin Amis will be in conversation with Sinead Gleeson, in Borris House, Co Carlow, on June 8th at 4.30pm, as part of the Éigse’s Festival of Writing and Ideas. Book at eigsecarlow.ie