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21 May 2023

The special relationship: Martin Amis and the New Statesman

How the late novelist’s time at the magazine in the 1970s helped develop his style and voice.

By Tom Gatti

It would be wrong to say that the career of Martin Amis, who has died aged 73, was forged in the pages of the New Statesman – as Claire Tomalin, who was for a while his boss as literary editor in the 1970s, recently pointed out to me, “His name was Amis, after all.” But the son of Kingsley encountered the magazine as its cultural “back half” was entering a golden age (of quality if not sales) and his literary life was beginning in earnest, so Martin and the Staggers could not help but rub off on each other.

In 1973, Amis the critic and Amis the novelist were both in the ascendant – and although he then had a staff job at the Times Literary Supplement, it’s to the NS that he turns to mark the moment in his memoir Experience. “In the November 23 issue of the New Statesman,” Amis writes, “the Books section opened with my 1,500-word review of John Carey’s study of Dickens, The Violent Effigy. A week previously, and a week prematurely, the Books section had closed with the novelist Peter Prince’s 500-word review… of The Rachel Papers.”

When Tomalin began as literary editor in 1974, she commissioned Amis to review Iris Murdoch’s latest novel: his “elegant, polite and devastating put-down” led to a job offer, and he joined the NS as Tomalin’s deputy in February 1975. “He was 25 and I was 40,” Tomalin wrote in her autobiography. “From the start he liked to put his arm around my waist and hold it there, standing beside me. I liked it too. And, although I did not care for cigarette smoke, I succumbed to the charm of his smoker’s voice, so deep that it made him sound older than he looked. It was the voice of a man of the world, which he was not, but soon would be.” Amis “wrote well because he thought well”.

Their love affair was brief: “Martin was attractive to many young women, and he was ready to enjoy the situation. That did not work for me.” But when Tomalin left in 1977 she handed over the literary editorship to Amis, with Julian Barnes as his deputy. Amis would edit the pages for another two years, working alongside Barnes, Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton. In his memoir North Face of Soho, Clive James, a regular at the circle’s famous Friday lunches around Bloomsbury and Holborn, recalled:

“I have never heard better talk about the arts and don’t expect to again, but I think all who participated would agree that the thing really took off when traditional fact gave way to current fantasy. Already becoming famous but still retaining enough anonymity to move among other people without their putting on an act, Martin Amis, in conversation, could translate the circumstances of ordinary life into the kind of phantasmagoria that didn’t show up in his novels until later. When he got going, he was like one of those jazz stars, relaxing after hours, who are egged on by the other musicians into chorus after chorus.”

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I met Amis in 2014, for a conversation with Grayson Perry that I had arranged for an issue of the magazine guest-edited by the artist. As Amis rolled up a cigarette outside Perry’s studio, he told me that – despite the tall tales and bibulous lunches – he took his work at the New Statesman very seriously. So much so, in fact, that it risked stalling his progress as a novelist – a sentiment that he had echoed in a BBC radio documentary the year before:

“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.”

[See also: “I’ve got a few of these stories”: An afternoon with Clive James, Tom Stoppard and Julian Barnes]

The political front half and cultural back half were not only on separate floors at the office at Great Turnstile House, but under Amis – who wrote in Experience that “the front half started to die with the conscience of the Labour Party” – the books pages maintained a distinctive editorial approach. “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,” he recalled in the same BBC programme. “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.”

For James, the magazine was “in its most glorious period… You could be indifferent, or even hostile, to the opinions expressed in ‘the front end’, but ‘the back end’ had an authority not to be ignored, entirely because the standard of its editing was so high.”

If Amis’s editing work for the New Statesman put the brakes on his fiction, it may have honed his work ethic – and the free range he had as a contributor can only have contributed to his mission to find the “new rhythms”, as he put it in The Information, or, as articulated in an interview in 1985, to “create a high style to describe low things: the whole world of fast food, sex shows, nude mags”. At the NS Amis could review a brace of soft porn magazines – under the pseudonym Bruno Holbrook, and the headline “Coming in handy”, he critiqued their “detumescing” prose – or attempt (and in this case, fail) to explain the “mild fad” of David Bowie, or visit the Conservative conference, as he did in Blackpool in October 1977, and sketch the new young Tories, with their “cautious, experimental beards, gingery moustaches, bum-fluff sideburns” and air of “raffish, mischievous condescension”.

And of course those devastating put-downs continued. Nobody was exempt: in 1978, Amis’s review of The Professor of Desire hauled Philip Roth up for the “cauliflowered” ear, “ugly chimes” and “back-to-the-drawing-board formulations” of the prose. “Roth is never boring, though, somehow,” he concludes, noting that the “element of play and indirection… cannot absent itself for much longer”, and he is hopeful of a return to form: “It will be more interesting, and not less so, to see what he does next.” It is a source of sadness that we can no longer say the same of Martin Amis.

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up