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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era