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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.