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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

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