OPINION - Martin Amis was by far the greatest chronicler of London since Dickens
God, I loved Martin Amis. There’s a video on YouTube that I must have watched a dozen times, where he’s lounging in a library with Clive James, puffing cigarettes and talking books.
At one point Amis says something I’ve been thinking about ever since the news came through that he’d sadly died from cancer at the age of 73: “Writers never find out how good they are, because the argument starts with the obituaries.”
There have been a few flare-ups on social media about Amis since his death — people have praised his essays, the impact he’s had on a whole generation of writers, as well as the irrepressible brilliance of some of his novels.
But for me Amis really deserves to be remembered as the greatest chronicler of London in fiction since Charles Dickens.
Early on in his first novel, the hilariously arch The Rachel Papers (1973), the young protagonist is heading to the capital to cram for his A-levels, and you find this bitter pearl of a line: “London is where people go in order to come back from it sadder and wiser.”
Ouch. From that moment on, in novels that spanned the length of his career, Amis couldn’t seem to stop writing about London in a brutal but searingly original way.
He was clearly fascinated by the contradictions and juxtapositions of our great city. It was in Money (1984) that we really got to see the two sides of Amis on London.
First there was Amis the acute examiner, seeing the familiar in new ways — like how he describes posh streets as “the dental belt”, marked by “the stucco of plaqued streets and carious squares”.
But there was also Amis the moralist — hurling erudite hellfire at our messed-up city. Like this passage, also from Money: “If you ask me, there’s a riot here every night. There always has been and there always will be. At eleven o’clock, London is a storm, a rave, a knees-up, a free-for-all.”
He was appalled, but also engrossed — it was as if he couldn’t help being drawn to the filth of the capital.
And by the way, Amis’s gimlet eye invariably looked upwards too — no one ever captured the atmosphere above our city like he did, whether describing London’s “white-van sky” or the way the clouds can have “the colour of a soft-boiled egg, shelled by city fingers.”
In London Fields (1989), Amis conjured up one of the most memorable fictional Londoners of all time: Keith Talent, a violent, bawdy and larger-than-life geezer — the kind of bloke who batters a man senseless during a game of darts. But this being Amis, Talent isn’t just scary — he’s also hilarious, and all too familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a dodgy boozer.
Amis knew that one of the defining features of London is the way that plutocrats and social housing estates might be separated by just a street or two — and he mined this juxtaposition again and again for comic effect.
He understood — in a way all Londoners do — the subtle distinctions between nearby neighbourhoods, which is why the smugly successsful novelist in the hilarious The Information (1995) lives in Holland Park, while the comically embittered failed novelist and book reviewer lives “off Ladbroke Grove, a good half-mile beyond Westway.”
By the time of his final London novel, Lionel Asbo (2012), Amis had become a crotchety old man, but his imaginary suburb of Diston — presumably modelled on Dalston — is still alive, “with its gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, its wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds.”
But I keep coming back — as future generations will — to his peerless observations about London lifes.
How’s this for an insight into the varying pace of gentrification? “London pubs always lag ten years behind the stretch of city they serve.”
Or this sublimely onomatopoeic description of travelling in a Hackney carriage: “The cab resumed its endless journey, its journey of hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait.”
For countless readers, Amis changed the way we’ll always see London. It’s his city, after all — the rest of us are just squatting in it.