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

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era