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27 May 2023

Among my life’s highlights is the time I made Martin Amis slap his thigh with laughter

Ever since then, when I have been feeling down, or stupid, or generally undervalued, I have consoled myself with this memory.

By Nicholas Lezard

Ping! A text from the Estranged Wife wakes me at an ungodly hour. She does this because she is a teacher and her only time off is in ungodly hours. I go back to sleep. When I get round to reading it, I find it says: “Did you know Martin Amis has died?”

No, I did not know this. I find out the bare, grim details of what killed him. I also know how old he was when he died because when you’re a fan, you tend to know which year the object of your devotion was born. And, for many years, Martin Amis was an object of devotion. There’s not really any other way of putting it. I had come to him late: it wasn’t until my early twenties, when my friend, the Moose (also departed, and always missed), advised me to read Money, as I had just been to Hungary to write additional dialogue for a film being shot there. The book, he explained, was a useful primer on the dangers of the film industry.

I read it, of course, and then went back and read everything else he’d written. I was not the only young man who was affected by him like that. (We were mostly young men, the fans.) I don’t think I need to go into too much detail. You know what his writing is like. In those days it was electrifying; or, perhaps, magnetic, as you aligned every reading molecule with his cadences, his vocabulary, his jokes. And his adjectives… oh, his adjectives. (To use an Amisian turn of phrase.)

Anyway, my film career never really got off the ground, so I became the next best thing: a book reviewer. Now, if you apply yourself to that, and aren’t too shit at it, you move up the greasy pole, and eventually you stop writing round-ups of people’s terrible first novels and have a crack at the big guns. Which meant, in those days, Martin Amis.

[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]

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So that was how I found myself, then literary editor of the Modern Review (MR) , dancing to the Stones in a packed Cobden Club, trying to prevent a journalist from another publication, who had a well-established reputation for this kind of behaviour, from pouncing on my wife and dragging her off somewhere, while also trying to pluck up the courage to introduce myself to MA. This was the launch party for his novel The Information, and I’d written a long and slightly sniffy review of it in the MR, but not, I hoped, so sniffy that he’d thump me or sneer at me. So I did introduce myself, and he said the review was “irrelevant” (if I heard him right), and because we’d drunk everything we went downstairs to the bar of the Working Men’s Club and he bought me a Scotch, and a line from one of his father’s novels popped into my head. Something like: he was handed the smallest drink he had ever seriously been offered.

I met him a couple of times after that, at parties given by Will Self. These went much better, and I think things were helped by my wife, to whom he was courteous and respectful, neither leering nor (as in my then editor Toby Young’s case) seemingly uninterested because she was Not Famous. Then one evening I was picked up in Will’s Multipla for a drive to rural Oxfordshire for a party at Redmond O’Hanlon’s. I was put in the back seat, next to Isabel Fonseca, and next to her was Martin. Will and his wife, Deborah Orr, were in front.

It was a long drive, and I felt a bit intimidated. I knew that if the car crashed on the M4 my name wouldn’t feature in the list of victims unless prefixed with the words “also in the car was”, and misspelled. But Isabel was chatty and friendly and at one point I threw a joke into an awkward silence that was so well timed the car erupted in laughter, and Martin actually slapped his thigh. I’d never seen anyone do that in real life before. (The punchline of the joke was “that was AS Byatt”, but you really had to be there.) Ever since then, when I have been feeling down, or stupid, or generally undervalued, I have consoled myself with this memory. I made Martin Amis slap his thigh in laughter.

Then, when my marriage fell apart, Isabel and Martin were among the first people to show me kindness: it was nothing more than an invitation to dinner but, believe me, for the person who has been de-cored by grief in the way only the end of a marriage can, this is a big deal.

And now he’s gone. Seventy-three. Christ, that’s no age these days. I dropped him a line from time to time, but I didn’t want to impose. I might have been in my late fifties the last time I did, but you’re never too old to be bashful. So the moral is: don’t be scared to meet your heroes.

[See also: What Martin Amis taught me]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation