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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.

Land that time forgot: Martin Amis’ England. (Photo: BBC/Les Films d’Ici 2/Mark Kidel)
Land that time forgot: Martin Amis’ England. (Photo: BBC/Les Films d’Ici 2/Mark Kidel)

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.