Martin Amis

The English imprisonment.

In Martin Amis's memoir Experience (to my mind, his finest book), there is an account of an altercation with Salman Rushdie over the merits of the prose of Samuel Beckett. Amis writes:

I really do hate Beckett's prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear . . . Feeling my father in me now (as well as the couple of hundred glasses of wine consumed at the party we had all come from), I settled down for a concerted goad and wheedle. By this stage Salman looked like a falcon staring through a venetian blind.

- "No neither nor never none not no --"

- "Do you want to come outside?"

End of evening.

I was reminded of this when reading Tom Chatfield's recent interview with Martin Amis -- in particular this exchange:

TC: More generally, you and your father are often bracketed together as comic writers. Is that something you feel is getting harder to do?
MA: The comic novel is dying, because comedy is anti-democratic. Comedy is a smear.
TC: Inviting you to laugh at.
MA: Yes. But that may be turning around a bit. People assume that it's the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones -- but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny. Who's that German writer doesn't even have paragraph breaks?
TC: I don't know him, I don't tend to read that kind of German writer.

Amis must mean the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, a master of book-length paragraphs. In any event, his refusal to admit to knowing Bernhard's name is a reminder that Amis's canon has always been conspicuously narrow, the list of his elective affinities proudly, even defiantly attenuated -- Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Smollett, Fielding (he mentions them all in the interview), plus those few honoured Americans (Bellow, Roth, Mailer) from whom he learned to irrigate the English novel with demotic fizz and dazzle. (Beckett, of course, is to all intents and purposes a European, a hero of Amis's dreaded "gloomy constituency".)

I can't think of anyone who has diagnosed the effects on Amis's prose of his self-imposed limitations better than James Wood, who wrote this in a review of Amis's 1995 novel, The Information:

The creation of a partly Americanised yet English comic voice has been his great achievement, and this is not negligible, for it has led Amis part of the way out of the English verbal prison of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But Amis has re-imprisoned himself in the English burlesque.

A "writer as good as this", Wood went on, "must find an escape". Reading his new novel, and the interviews that have accompanied its publication, I'm not at all sure that Amis is still looking.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.