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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories