Martin Amis: Why I had to quit the New Statesman

The BBC's Meeting Myself Coming Back this week features the novelist Martin Amis, who remembers his days as Literary Editor at the New Statesman and explains why he had to leave.

Meeting Myself Coming Back is a BBC Radio 4 documentary which allows prominent figures to remember their careers through recordings in the BBC archives. In this episode, Martin Amis is reacquainted with a younger version of himself in a witty and honest journey through his life and career.

The programme kicks off with a dated clip from Amis' brief stint as a child-actor in the High Wind in Jamaica, which Amis amusingly reveals isn’t actually him but an elderly woman dubbed in to replace him after his voice broke mid-filming. It continues through to his time as the New Statesman’s Literary Editor, and then progresses to his career as a novelist, literary critic and political commentator more generally. Particular emphasis is placed on a section of his memoirs in which he details the abduction and murder of his young cousin Lucy Partington. He also address the controversial statements he made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The programme smoothly navigates the kinks in Amis’s life: his expulsion from grammar school for truancy, his life in the shadow of his “nice but indolent” father Kinglsey Amis, and his ongoing battle with his teeth, which, he says, has bestowed upon him a real “understanding of suffering”.

This episode of Meeting Myself Coming Back features some quaint anecdotes: at one point the narrator describes a New Statesman competition which asked readers to suggest unlikely book titles for authors. One response suggested for Amis was “My Struggle”. In another section, an audacious young Amis pillories a piece of “old Pilger prose” on the Vietnam War which he states lacks balance and tends towards caricature, much to the dislike of Mr Pilger.

Life at the New Statesman plays a significant part in the hour-long episode. In the unlikely setting of an annual cricket match between the New Statesman and the Tribune, after commenting that he was neither batter nor bowler but in fact “everything”, Amis describes his vision for the literary back pages:

I could use our correspondent from the front-half but would be more inclined to get someone quirky, someone more right-wing, who would make a more interesting piece. Everyone knows what the NS feels about things. And I don’t think you want them said twice. You want an alternative view point in the back half.

Amis also laments his inability to write fiction while working at the New Statesman, and discusses his motivation for leaving in 1979:

It was so absorbing, in fact, that I had to give it up because I didn’t write a word of fiction once I was editor. It gave me so much satisfaction to open the paper on Friday when it was all done that I thought I’d better give this up because I won’t write another word.

Martin Amis smoking - now the subject of a popular blog! Photograph: Getty Images.
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times