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
BBC4

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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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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