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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.