Martin Amis Misses England

I once read a novel by Martin Amis. One was enough. Over the years I have, however, occasionally come across him elsewhere, for the most part when he turns up in the papers and on the box. Remember the interview number about the Muslims, you know, the one of which he later maintained that he meant it ‘only’ as a ’thought experiment’ or ‘mood experiment’: ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children…’ I just love the unconsciously ironic ‘discriminatory stuff’ in that ‘mood experiment’, one which Donald Trump has made his own.

Well, here he is again, our Martin, back where he so comfortably belongs, ‘in the news’ (interviewed in the Guardian, Saturday September 16). Apparently New York is no longer quite the thing, the Big Apple having finally induced a dose of homesickness: ‘I miss the English’ (the English, mind you, not the Scots, the Welsh, or the Irish). I’m so glad he told us this; morsels of Amisian subjectivity daintily wrapped inside an updated bulletin on the state of the Amisian soul are a Saturday treat. One reason for his current dejection is having been obliged to live for the better part of a year in his mother-in-law’s Manhattan townhouse as a consequence of his own house (in Brooklyn) having been devastated by fire (‘the last kick in the arse of 2016’, his personal contribution to the year’s catalogue of calamity). Once upon a time it was the Teeth Saga, pages and pages of drivel about his ravaged dental arrangements. Now it’s the ‘problems’ of living in a house he finds uncongenial, though relief lies just round the corner: he will be moving into an apartment on the 20th floor where ‘you are up there in the clouds’, he says. ‘It’s going to be very heady, certainly to begin with.’ Something to look forward to, then.

In the meantime, it’s all pretty hellish: ‘in the gloomy drawing room, he moves stiffly around nursing a back injury, ruefully enumerating the ways in which old houses can ruin one’s life’. Poor chap, I do feel his pain, these old multi-storeyed houses in downtown Manhattan, who on earth would want to live there. To adapt Oscar, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh, or think of the shuffling old men in Samuel Beckett, about whom this ‘writer’ has opined ‘I really do hate Beckett’s prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear’. Well, at least he’s hearing something (see below).

Amis is long on opinions (thoughts are another matter). There’s an opinion or two on what it is he ‘misses’ about the English, such that, although he will continue living in his New York skyscraper, he will probably come home, at least to die. You see, the English have ‘wit’ and ‘humour’, unlike New Yorkers. I lived and worked for five years in New York. You’d have to walk round the city with ears bunged and everywhere else well padded with stupidity (to lift an expression from George Eliot) not to have routinely encountered wit of the sharp, streetwise New York brand. In his case, it’s probably as much the stupidity as the deafness, at least if we go by his account of what for him is so pleasing in the ‘English’ forms of wit. It has something to do with the pleasures of causing offence. This is where Amis truly comes home, in from the cold into the warm embrace of those who invoke the notorious ‘right to offend’, the underpinning of Daily Mail hate speech notwithstanding that nowhere in the Founders, or Thomas Paine or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is there any reference to a right to offend as such:

I miss the wit. Americans, they’re very, well, de Tocqueville saw this coming in about 1850 – he said, it’s a marvellous thing, American democracy, but don’t they know how it’s going to end up? It’s going to be so mushy that no one will dare say anything for fear of offending someone else. That’s why Americans aren’t as witty as Brits, because humour is about giving a little bit of offence.

Americans don’t ‘dare’ etc.

Well, in that case how dare he write and, as in the interview, speak about Trump, since in this connection too he seems to inhabit the US in a permanent state of surdity; Trump knows nothing of wit, but he sure doesn’t suffer from ‘fear of offending someone else’ (people of colour, for starters). Trump however isn’t a good role model, not because he’s witless but because he claimed, during the campaign, to ‘love the uneducated’. In his languidly lordly way, Amis despises them. The whole point, for him, of English wit and humour, is the freedom to cause offence. This is what distinguishes the ‘English’ from Americans who ‘flinch from mocking someone’s background or education’. Amis doesn’t flinch, although in the interview unflinching Amis (his example of someone up for being mocked as ill-educated continues to be Jeremy Corbyn) takes off into a spiral of stunning, near delirious incoherence: Hitler was ill-educated (move over Jeremy!), Lenin wasn’t that much cop, but Stalin, now there’s an educated leader for you: ‘a lifelong autodidact’; ‘an incredible reader. Balzac and Dickens’; ‘an anthologised poet’. Think what a happy difference it would make if Jeremy, instead of just ‘two E grades at A-level’, were like Stalin, ‘capable of political poetry in a way Lenin was not’. Does anyone have any idea where Amis is going with this demented riff? It doesn’t look that good as a way of rubbishing the Labour leader because he got only ‘two Es at A-level’.

The fantasia around the autodidacts’ pantheon bracketed (with difficulty) for now, it would seem that what Amis really misses is the English de haut en bas sneer. So, welcome back, Martin. Although not to everywhere. Given what he so ‘offensively’ said about Muslims in this country coupled with a subsequent rationalisation that succeeded only in making matters worse, there seem to be reasons other than snobbery for his missing the English. Ideas of Englishness have served the political class for as long as I can remember, but now, in the era of Brexit, are being ramped up in the service of a reactionary, self-protective identity politics whose principal concern seems to be the unacceptability of other forms of identity politics as alleged threats to ‘social cohesion’. Reflex symptoms of this are now to be found everywhere. Incredibly, we have a recently opened play about, of all things, rivers-of-blood Mr Enoch Powell and his tortured yearnings for homeland and belonging as he looks out over the Shropshire landscape and preposterously affirms that this is ‘England’ because it has ‘always been the same’. Another shovelful of rubbish chucked, in the name of ‘culture’, on the growing heap of Brexit nostalgia. In his own self-absorbed way, Amis adds his own shovelful. Shortly before I opened my copy of the Saturday Guardian to hit a near loss of the will to live, I had been to shop in Stepney Market. At the entrance there are dozens of posters and announcements. One says ‘Racism, Bigotry and Prejudice are not welcome here’. The time has probably come to add the appalling Mr Amis.

Christopher Prendergast is a life fellow at King's College, Cambridge and on the editorial team of King's review. He contributes regularly for the London Review of Books and New Left Review.