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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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