In the Critics this week

Leo Robson on Martin Amis, Peter Hennessy interviewed and Rainer Werner Fassbinder remembered.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson takes the measure of Martin Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo: State of England. Amis, Robson reminds us, for all that he is credited with importing the rhythms of the modern American novel into English fiction, “started off as a neo-Dickensian”. Lionel Asbo, Robson writes, is “a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche” – albeit one that is “at least as interested in race as class”. This is, Robson concludes, “is a contentedly throwaway piece of work, as can be deduced from the almost complete absence of reflections on physics, fascism and the waning powers of the middle-aged novelist”.

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to historian Peter Hennessy about his new book Distilling the Frenzy. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to an examination of the office of prime minister, one of the defining paradoxes of which is that it has a tendency to “overmightiness”, even though the occupants of No 10 rarely feel powerful. Hennessy agrees, though observes that “those who are on the receiving end of excessive prime ministerialism certainly feel it”. On the two great “command premierships” of the postwar period, Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s, Hennessy says: “There’s a difference. Margaret liked to get her way after a bloody good argument. Tony didn’t like the argument … And that’s a big difference.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews Anthony Beevor’s “utterly absorbing” The Second World War; Peter Wilby on How England Made the English by Harry Mount; Helen Lewis on Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum; and Alex Preston on Simon Mawer’s novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey assesses the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 30 years after the German director’s death; Antonia Quirke is entranced by Newshour on the BBC World Service; Will Self examines the subtle relationship between irony and snobbery; Alexandra Coghlan goes to Glyndebourne; and Rachel Cooke wades through a weekend’s worth of Jubilee programming on television.

Neo-Dickensian: Martin Amis (Photo: Getty Images)
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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge