Martin Amis’s fictions paint a bleak portrait of England. Under the influence of J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, and to some extent his father, he depicts it as a hostile, culturally baron country, occupied by feckless idiots, drunks and hedonists. His characters are frequently working-class, hold thoroughly untenable opinions and almost invariably are obsessed with money, both spending and obtaining it.
Amis’s last novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, an unabashed and misdirected sendup of chav culture, was perhaps his most disparaging depiction of England to date. Yet he insists that he’s a patriot, and in Martin Amis’s England sets about trying articulate his true feelings on the place, free from the comical exaggeration of his novels. At first it’s hard to grasp the concept of the programme: the title and synopsis might suggest that this is a documentary in which Amis addresses the camera directly, reciting pre-written monologues about what it means to be English.
But instead the programme takes the form of a long interview, ostensibly recorded at Amis’s home, and is inter-spliced with footage from the BFI’s National Archive. The subject of the sexual revolution is illustrated by shots of groovy girls in mini skirts, while black and white footage of grim looking streets is shown to demonstrate how bleak life in England was after World War II. At times this footage does Amis the disservice of being more interesting than he is. Mostly, though, as is true of his writing, he manages to be entertaining even when his point seems morally questionable.
Over the course of 55 minutes, Amis speaks of a variety of things that he believes define England: the weather, the fall of imperialism, football, multiculturalism and what he calls England’s obsession with pleasure — that is, our supposed propensity for booze, which in turn, he says, leads us to sex. In spite of perhaps this last point, it is hard to imagine that many people would disagree with much of what he says, which is surprising given Amis’s reputation as controversial writer.
Even on the subject of class he’s surprisingly non-contentious. He’s always been obsessed with it, he admits. When he was just a boy he remembers taking a “How Posh Are You” test in The Daily Mail. He was very pleased with himself, convinced that he was scoring well, until he arrived at the last question: What would you name your child? In the upper-class category were names like “George” and “Edward”, he says, and in the lower-class category, next to “Keith”, that hallmark of commonness, was his name. That’s when he threw the newspaper and pen to the floor.
Amis describes his own upbringing as lower middle class, but says he’s never felt sure of his standing in society. On the one hand, he seems to appreciate the culture of the upper classes, but on the other likes to make it known that he’s not above enjoying a lager beer or partaking in a bit of weasel fighting down the old pub. For a man who has written so damningly about members of the working class, he seems strangely envious of low-culture, as though such things are part of an exclusive club for labourers and members of the residuum.
Perhaps the most discrediting thing about Amis is that, although he admits that he has little connection to the working class, he still speaks with complete certainty on the subject, even when it becomes plainly clear that he’s out of his depth. He has a similar air of self-assurance when discussing other things, too, but is at least able to speak somewhat convincingly about post-war England, imperialism and national identity.
Only occasionally is he able to seem mildly self-deprecating, such as when he recalls the first time he ever saw a black person. He was a Rhodesian academic, Amis says. His father, Kinglsey, was meeting him in town, and beforehand schooled his young son on what he was about to see. “He’s going to have black skin,” he explained, and Martin replied confidently that he knew what to expect. Yet when he met the Rhodesian academic in person, he became overcome with shock, and with his finger pointed yelled, “You’ve got a black face!”
Amis seems more than a little embarrassed to admit this. He feels strongly that multiculturalism has been a good thing for England; without it the country might not have got over the fall of the British Empire. It helped solidify in people’s minds that imperialism was not a good thing, and it progressed the country at a much faster rate than any of its neighbours. We might have been in decline for the past 70 years, but he believes that our poetry is still the best in the world, and our sexual revolution happened long before it did elsewhere in Europe.
And then, as if to prove both these points, he quotes Larkin: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) / – Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”
But though he has seldom before spoken so positively about the place, Amis goes on to say that he isn’t entirely fond of England. He hates our bizarre tradition of football violence, and loathes of our conflicting relationship with alcohol, as footage of drunk, slack-jawed lads in V-neck tops illustrates.
Of course no doubt anybody who is at all averse to Martin Amis will wonder, well, who cares what he thinks of England anyway? And indeed this is a perfectly fair question to ask. But anybody who has ever found Amis remotely interesting, in his fiction or in his journalism, should find his thoughts here at least entertaining, even if they disagree fervently with almost everything he has to say.
Martin Amis’s England is on BBC Four on Sunday 23 March at 9.00pm