Stripclubs and castrating feminists: Martin Amis and Julian Barnes go undercover

A note from the archive.

When Bruce Page was editor of the New Statesman, in the early 1980s, he received two letters from Marion Lloyd, leader of the “Agnes Varda Women’s Collective”, writing to protest the almost necrophiliac indulgence she’d encountered in a recent London Diary:

David Caute writes of his sexual excitement at witnessing a scene in a film where a man “about my age” rapes “a young and lovely woman who is close to death from an overdose”. Our collective is currently seeking finance for a film in which a literary editor of middle years is stripped naked, covered in warm honey, and suspended by his genitalia from a chandelier; whereupon a swarm of bees flies in through the window. We think many women would find this sexually exciting and would pay good money at the box office to see it. Those interested in supporting such a venture should send cheques c/o the New Statesman.

Marion Lloyd is a character in Julian Barnes’s debut novel Metroland (1979), and thus, in more than one respect, Marion Lloyd is Julian Barnes.

Two weeks later the actor and comedian Peter Cook stepped forward with an offer of support. “I would be interested in financing the film,” he wrote, but not without some reservation. “Before sending a cheque I would like an assurance that this is not to be yet another bee-ist exploitation movie like The Swarm … There must of course be no cruelty to the bees.” Ms Lloyd set his fears to rest:

The bees will be seen as merely going about their normal business when they come across the sweet hanging bait of the literary editor. To further underline the point, the film will begin with a scene in which the same literary editor, in a fit of malicious glee, stamps in succession on a bee, a wasp, a bumblebee and a hornet. The audience will, we believe, be in no doubt as to where their dramatic sympathies should lie.

Barnes later addressed the morally squalid aspects of pseudonymity with Ryan Roberts in Conversations with Julian Barnes (2009). “I quite liked using one,” he reflects. “There was something liberating about it.”

This was my persecution of David Caute. I worked for him as deputy literary editor on the New Statesman, and – how can I put it? – we were never going to be best friends … And he thought it was a completely genuine letter and that a gang of castrating feminists were out to get him. Did I tell you the sequel? Francis Wheen, who was then working on the Statesman, told me that Caute was so alarmed that he changed his way of going home from the office. He’d come out, look around furtively, then sort of bolt down the side alley, turn left and right, and take a different way. I thought that was a great success. I’m very proud of that. Who says that writing doesn’t have an effect?

Lloyd was not the only anguished spectre writing for the NS in the 70s and 80s. Edward Pygge, a creation by the critic and biographer Ian Hamilton, edited and wrote a number of poems for the Review, New Review and New Statesman. Hamilton used his projection to send up passing trends in his own magazine (“The New Emeticism”). The persona endured for over a decade and was employed by Clive James, John Fuller, Russell Davies and finally Barnes. At the NS, Pygge wrote the weekly quiz, a football-themed one-act set in the Middle East (“Dhabi County”) and put together a double-page Christmas poetry spread, which included the ballad “Assailed by Doubt outside a Public Convenience in North London” by John Youbetchaman, and T S Tambiguiti’s morose “The Wasted Land”. In 1977 he was granted a knighthood, without royal approval.

The habit of literary procurement – Basil Seal, a character from Evelyn Waugh, wrote restaurant reviews on Barnes’s behalf, after Barnes mistook him for “the man [in Waugh’s novels] who was always available for dinner” – coincided with a period of nominal anxiety, when both Barnes and Amis were publishing their first novels. In 1973, following the publication of The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis wrote two columns for the New Statesman as the lusty “Bruno Holbrook”. The first, “Fleshspots” was a tour of Soho stripclubs of varying distinction: “When one joins a group of hot, aromatic men who have come to see women take their clothes off for money one is prepared to feel any number of things: craven, indignant, ridiculous, feebly perverted, even (who knows?) quite sexy.” The second, “Coming in Handy”, was a report on the erotic bankruptcy of soft-core pornography, in which the reporter, “meat-replete, gonad-glutted”, fails to find satisfactory élan vital:

For the most part the lower-order mags are grey, dispiriting bestiaries, in which haggard and portly persons display their charms with a combination of listlessness and unalluring candour. Legs are parted, breasts cupped, derrières hoisted towards camera, while the face – in life, the sexiest part of the naked female – remains dourly stupefied or else contorted in cynical ecstasy. Now these girls (in contrast to, say, the Playboy gatefold) are probably much on a par with some of our own imperfect consorts, and they might even prove endearing if more modestly presented. Perhaps it’s with this in mind that the pimp-like copywriters encourage you to make, as it were, the girls’ acquaintance. On the one hand, the nudes; on the other, the husky, nudging captions: caught in that sensual music, presumably, the subscriber grinds himself empty.

Perhaps it was Bruno’s honesty that made him irrisistable. Perhaps it was his style. In 2011 Tina Brown recalled meeting Amis early the following year. They were at a party thrown by the literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, who later became Julian Barnes’s wife: “Martin’s there, of course being absolutely divine. We were talking about writers we admired, and I said my favourite writer of all is this guy who writes for the New Statesman, Bruno Holbrook. And there was this sort of pause, and then Martin, with his long eyelashes, you know, said, ‘I am Bruno Holbrook.’ It was like Cupid’s dart. Whereupon we went off for a great meal, and then, you know, two days later…”

Martin Amis in 1977. Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear