I Might As Well Do My Dad Here: Martin Amis Speaks in Perth
“I’m not at all reluctant to talk about my father, since it’s become clearer to me that it is more or less a unique case. First of all, it doesn’t seem that literary ability is very strongly inherited. As far as I know, my father and I are the only father-and-son team who both have a body of work, or, as my father would put it, who are both “some good.” And you know, Auberon Waugh and David Updike may have come up with a novel or two here and there, but not two chunks of work, either in succession or synchronously, as we have. I want to make it clear that it’s been nothing but a help to me. Maybe it was more difficult for him, funnily enough; it took me a long time to realize that. I don’t know how I’d feel if one of my little boys started to write, but I do know that I feel generally resentful of younger writers.“
Seeing Martin Amis speak, you get the sense of a tailored repetition, that behind the work of a hedge-trimming public relations team a sizeable amount of human quality wriggles. To be sure, the whole thing could be a crock of ships, and Amis alone may be cannier than he seems. As much returns to the thoughts of at least a few contrary observers, when the traces of a crypto-right-wing-ism bobs its way in Amis’ public opinions, and the smell of coterie and daddy’s money wiffs a bit too much to ignore.
My impression of Amis was frankly, a bit vague. The guy once quipped that in comparison to his father he had a cloth ear for European classical music. Not so much that I feel my ear has dulled (though it may), as I’m listening to Amis at a drivable distance. Perhaps the fact of my almost 40 years juniority makes Martin sound as if he’s speaking out through particularly ‘touched’ cloth. Although not just his voice, but his books too fell weakly on me. I think Versace Sting agreed with me there once.
Yes, they’re prettily phrased. Martin can string words and poise rhythm, even if at times it tends toward the porphyry. They’re also sounded through with interesting lexical choices. Earlier, I mentioned Martin Amis’ prose writing is prettily phrased. I would like to recapitulate his choice of words and the order they are placed in gives you a good sense of consciousness-of-prettiness. On this merit, it remains a curious set of circumstances Amis hasn’t yet received the recognition he seems to – covet? His father Kingsley Amis Knighted, His friend Salman Rushdie too, paramour Christopher Hitchens I’m sure got something. Martin doesn’t cringe at mentioning it: “All my friends, my contemporaries are either accepting or turning down knighthoods and they're all Commanders of the British Empire ... and I have had fuck all."
Amis’ chagrin is imaginable having come to Perth, birthplace of an artist of comparable public stature and talent, Rolf Harris, both a member of the Order of Australia, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Only 10 years before the microwave-quality reception of Amis’ first novel The Rachel Papers (1973), Harris’ verse panache set to music “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” caught astronomical successes in the Commonwealth and American markets. One imagines the spectre of Harris haunts Martin in the deep summer heat of Perth, much like the bodies of the Latin American dead and the verse of Jewish poets do in the work of Roberto Bolaño, his father Kingsley Amis entirely aside. And yet maybe such visions are to be expected in a man with thoughts developed as those of his on the twin horrors of the Shoah and Islamic Terrorism. A point in the case being this précis of his ideas on our obligations toward the Islamic community in a 2006 Time Magazine interview:
“What can we do to raise the price of them [Muslims] doing this [Terrorism]? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children...It’s a huge dereliction on their part.”
At other moments Amis has outwardly mused whether "there exists on our planet a kind of human being who will become a Muslim in order to pursue suicide-mass murder". It is curious to consider why Martin has not garnered more favour in the resource rich states of North-Eastern and Western Australia. Amis’ non-fiction seems equally suitable for the coffee tables of Cronulla, from which the flag-draped home-owner or inhabitant would read between quaffs from the tinny and the modified Gatorade bottle. And this is very much the setting transposed, of Martin Amis’ most recent novel Lionel ASBO (read: Anti-Social Behaviour Order), of which the New York Observer cleanly remarked: “Lionel Asbo is a bad book”. With a comparable amount of effort you could say the novel jabs a bit too uppishly (with a bouquet of double-mindedness and officiousness) at a class of people both ideologically similar yet structurally distant from Amis and his lieu. It’s this affinity for opinion and for dealing with alterity which makes a scalpel in his hands into a wooden club.
Just as choofing buges and hair-of-the-dog need not be entirely harmful with a certain disposition, class-consciousness and cultural criticism doesn’t HAVE to delegitimize a group of people. Still, there are those unaffected by it, and at times possess a vibrancy which is a rara avis to the townhouse set of Amis’ milieu. Maybe someone out there will agree that it’s South-West Sydney’s Gravy Baby who has become the nonpareil for a mode of art inimical to an ornery strain of crypto-conservatism, which proceeds with a question, in spite of a kind of facile holding-forth. “How the fuck does Gravy flip it like that?” Gravy Baby asks himself in the process of a free improvisation, and we feel vicariously, asks us; it isn’t long before the question becomes at once a disclosure of an inexhaustible poetic momentum, and a stripping away of the givens of ready-to-hand existence.
Taking the drive home after the conclusion of Amis’ talk at the Perth Concert Hall, after wending the foyer chocked with blue-rinse and the bought looks of the younger sort of parvenu, Gravy dressed me in the same comfort Krasznahorkai had after a stint of aid work in the Indian Subcontinent. Despite my disappointment at the doyens of English language fiction I didn’t want to go the route of running round in vitriol. I didn’t feel I had the courage or the knack of mustering my effort. Through my car stereo Gravy Baby ended the first strophe of his Meisterstück ‘Tripped out’ and started ad-libbing for the second. I remembered Gravy flowing to me some seconds before something essential, a decision to be, inexorable and thrown from the force of the will. That for Gravy:
This is semi-automatic raps
Cones to the dome, go demon on the track.
I’m immortal with the technique,
At the point of no return,
Hip Hop’s my life and there’s no turning back.
For Gravy I could have the courage to be, to trust my intuition and my sense of Weltanshauung. That Martin Amis is a bit of a Gronk and I shouldn’t be afraid to get staunch on him just a little bit. Here was a moment-as-event Theologian Paul Tillich had theorized 62 years earlier in an extended essay titled “The Courage to Be.” Tillich had augured the nature of this limit-experience, and the language unknowingly I’d use to describe it: “The vitality which can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware” he wrote, “of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning.” Here was gnosis through an exuberant world-affirmation, what Gravy means when he recalls himself to himself and calls: “Wait hold up – I tell these c***s it’s all GRA-VY BA-BY”. Life and thought can flow, it endures, really it’s all gravy. On your way mate Martin.