Land that time forgot: Martin Amis’ England. (Photo: BBC/Les Films d’Ici 2/Mark Kidel)
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Martin Amis’s England: a baffling highly subjective take on the nation through the eyes of an expat

A documentary made for French TV by a writer entirely out of touch with modern Britain – and it showed. This stereotyped land of stiff-upper-lip repression just made Amis sound stupid.

Martin Amis’s England

So far, responses to Martin Amis’s England (Sunday, 9pm)  have ranged from mild bafflement (a minority) to tinny outrage (the majority). I’m in the baffled camp – mostly, I think, because I don’t really have it in me to be truly angry at the author of Money (or Experience, which I regard, controversially, as his best book). Yes, he says dumb things these days. Yes, he’s starting to sound a bit like his pater. But he’s also clinging to his reputation as if to a lifebelt and I can only feel tenderly about that. Piled between hard covers, his marvellous sentences no longer convince and he knows it.

So, when asked he talks, hoping to dazzle that way instead. And quite often he does. In conversation Amis is biblically unequivocal, with beautiful cadences to match, and since absolutely no one speaks like this any more – not our priests and certainly not our politicians – he still has the power to hypnotise. I’ve interviewed him twice and both times I only noticed what rot he was spouting once I was on the pavement outside.

Still, you have to wonder – here’s the baffling part – how someone so clever ended up on this occasion sounding so incredibly stupid. Admittedly the documentary was made for French television and its director had clearly done his best to encourage Amis to reinforce a stereotype popular on the other side of the Channel. (We’re repressed! We like spanking! Some of us fantasise about the Queen!) But he didn’t have to go along with this. Gilding a cliché artfully and with reference to John Milton and Samuel Richardson doesn’t make it any less a cliché .

About this “English diffidence” he’s so fond of: has he never looked at Twitter? Or Facebook? Or The X Factor? As for his determination we continue to be inept in the bedroom, I think he should get down to Coco de Mer in Covent Garden and have a good gawp at all the sex toys. “Working-class girls,” he said, referring to his youth, when he was reputedly something of a swordsman, “were like living chastity belts.” For all that he sounded so revoltingly snobbish and boastful at this point – that detestable use of the plural, as if women in pink overalls were simply queuing up outside his flat – I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe they just didn’t fancy you, Mart!

The loopiest part, though, was his Big Idea. You want to know why we drink? (I’m going to assume that you do drink, for as Amis noted, one must have “the freedom” to generalise.) Well, it’s all down to the empire, see, the loss of which has left us feeling terribly embarrassed and so we blot out the shame with booze. Do remember this the next time you’re in Newcastle on a Friday night. You might think that the insensible revellers of the Bigg Market are just trying to enjoy themselves, what with work being so hard, or so hard to come by. But really they’re trying to forget about Suez and the fact Bombay’s now known as Mumbai. How this fits with Amis’s other conviction that the British played with such a “straight bat” during the war that being English is, for him, “a source of quiet pride”, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a class thing, the officers strutting about contentedly while the privates all knock back their Jägerbombs. For Amis is nothing if not obsessed with class. Then again, he’s not exactly officer material himself, or so he insists: a Daily Mail quiz he took as a teenager deemed the name Martin distinctly non-U.

And so it continued. A burst of Vaughan Williams while he considered the weather (terrible). A newsreel of Churchill while he pondered post-war austerity (he quoted a line from Orwell about “greasy socks” which disintegrated beneath the feet). Some truly feeble stuff on the subject of how women fantasise about being “ravished” because then it’s not their fault if “they enjoy it” (though at least we were spared a clip of Nyree Dawn Porter in The Forsyte Saga to illustrate this). Football hooligans, Penelope Keith, the Festival of Britain… Someone had had an awful lot of fun in the film archive, though we waited in vain for a glimpse of 21st-century Britain. The only snatch of modern life I caught at all was from the window behind Amis but I took this to be Brooklyn, his new home. Not that he cared to mention the fact he now lives in New York with his American wife. Perhaps he was worried that if he did, viewers might think him out of touch.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis