Martin Amis fiddles with the reading glasses dangling around his neck and pauses as if trying to remember something very important. “He’s ginge, he’s loud, he’s done us f*cking proud,” he recites, raising his voice like a North Stand regular at a football match. “He’s here, he’s mean, his gran’s the f*cking Queen.” This rhyming couplet, taken from an Army chant, isn’t quite the reasoned, hyper-eloquent opinion on Prince Harry we expected to come from the mouth of one of the finest novelists of his generation.
But, as ShortList finds, the enduringly gifted 62-year-old who gave us Money, London Fields and Time’s Arrow is full of surprises. Preoccupied with Euro 2012 (“War and religion are the only things that give me the same feeling as an England match,” he sighs), he’s funnier and warmer than you’d imagine, as the firebrand who’s courted recent press controversy with comments on euthanasia for the elderly and the morality of Islam.
He’s not short of a provocative opinion or two, though. Using the themes explored in his terrific 13th novel Lionel Asbo as a starting point, we quizzed him on the British relationship to everything from alcohol to the monarchy. We don’t think he’s expecting a knighthood any time soon…
THE REBRANDED ROYALS
“I approved of the irrationally happy Jubilee atmosphere I saw in Britain. But I was oddly pleased when I heard that 500 people were treated for hypothermia after the flotilla. The notion of these people trembling away through it all seems strangely fitting. They’ve got to wrap the monarchy up, but they won’t. They’ll resist and it will eventually become like the Spanish system, where it’s like an upper-middle-class monarchy. Then there’s the side of it that’s almost child abuse. It’s this strange idea of locking your children into that life. Having said that, although [the monarchy] is baffling and embarrassing, it’s hard to say it’s an evil thing. They unite races and have been a force for colour-blindness in society despite, to put it mildly, being an anachronism.”
THE BRITISH LOVE OF ALCOHOL
“Drinking is an unignorable feature of British life, isn’t it? I can remember 25 years ago, when I’d do a reading in somewhere like Norwich, the whole town would be dead by six o’clock. Now, every night there are people in the gutter. And there seems to be more of a happy, sloppiness to it these days. It’s a giggly drunkenness. If people are like countries and, in turn, countries are like people, you only need to look at what’s happened to Britain in the past 70 years or so [for an explanation]. The loss of an empire and steep decline to the global third tier. We drink to forget, and there’s a sense of collectively drowning our sorrows. In general, Britain makes no waves in the world and we used to rule it. You notice that in America, where I live now. You flick through The New York Times and once a month there’ll be half a page on the UK.”
PHONE-HACKING AND CELEBRITY
“After I’d just moved to the US, I got a call from the police in London saying they were going through journalists’ hard drives and that they had found my name and number on a list. There was no evidence that I had been hacked, but the police said I might want to look into reparations. I wasn’t interested. [Guardian journalist] Deborah Orr said that even if all this information [unearthed by phone hacking over the years] was delivered gift-wrapped and swaddled by a stork, it would still be terrible. The whole direction of the interest is awful and it will take a long time for the tabloid press to purge themselves of that. The press is more cynical than the population. That was shown spectacularly when Diana died. They had pictures of her as an angel on the front, with a pullout screaming, ‘She f*cked an Arab!’ inside. I think British people in general aren’t like that at all, but there must be enough of them to keep it going.”
MODERN BRITISH MEN
“Are British men more vain now? Look at footballers. Even Wayne Rooney had a hair transplant. I thought David Beckham was a great footballer – no one could cross a ball like him – but the perfume ads slightly turn me off. The fact that he was flattered about being a gay icon is truly great and I’m sure he’s a goodhearted guy, but he’s a classical example of someone that’s too interested in their own body.
“Then there’s the alternative of men being men, shamelessly. The movement that was very present when I was a young man was that men should become more feminine, so it seems as if this is a reaction to that. The need to glory in your own male grossness. Every man has a bit of that and when you’re with your mates, terrible things come out of your mouth. I’m no exception to that. But I wouldn’t talk that way to girls.”
SEX AND PORNOGRAPHY
“I don’t think I know how I’d have done as a young, single man in Britain today. I talked to my oldest daughter about [relationships] a lot when she was in her twenties and she kept me informed about sexual habits and mores. She used to tell me some shocking things about how porny the men were. I’m surprised a lot of women have assented to pornography because I think it denigrates their great power: procreation. Pornography makes sex seem as if it has nothing to do with reproduction. If aliens came down and had porn as their only evidence, they’d think we procreated by sneezing on each other or something.
“I said to Will Self once, ‘Why, in pornography, does it always end with something women hate?’ And he simply said, ‘Because it’s a misogynistic form.’ It’s something I’ve never done, although I have thought about it. I suppose sex is such a big part of a young man’s life that I would have gone along with it all. But decency forbids me from imagining doing anything like that. I can’t bear to think of my little daughters growing up and meeting guys that are obsessed with that. Terrifying.
“But it seems to go with the age of the internet. Everything is at one remove. I read somewhere that a literate brain is different physically from an illiterate brain, it has different bits. And now a digital savvy brain is already different from a literary brain as well. There are different ganglias and things hanging off it, which is fascinating.”
THE CLASS DIVIDE
“There was no hesitancy on my part writing about the working classes in Lionel Asbo, because I’ve done it so many times before. I’ve always liked it and think it’s full of its own beauty and poetry as well as the ugliness. It must go back to childhood when I was often farmed out to spend time with working-class families. These were Welsh people, Taffs, but you get an ear for that stuff when you’re young and you never lose it. There’s never been a period in my life when I didn’t have connections in that area.
“There’s not a prison in London that I haven’t been to, and a prison waiting room is a very interesting place. Pubs, too. When I was writing London Fields, I’d go out every day and wouldn’t come back until I heard something good. In my head, I don’t feel that I’m intruding because I know that world. Also, I’m just not interested in the middle classes. I like extremes. I even read [lottery winner and self-proclaimed ‘King of Chavs’] Mikey Carroll’s autobiography while researching Lionel Asbo, and it’s a charming book. Put it this way, he’s a lovely boy when he’s asleep.”
“When Hitch [the late Christopher Hitchens] and I used to get into confrontations as young men, he wouldn’t back down. Whereas I’d be thinking that discretion is the better part of valour, he thought the opposite. We were having a row once in an absolutely ferocious Irish pub underneath Piccadilly Circus, a real subterranean dive. Suddenly, we began this macho struggle over who was going to finish a glass of whisky on the table between us. This was all being sadly watched by [poet] James Fenton, who was probably thinking he’d have to take us to hospital. That’s when I thought, ‘He’s never going to give in or back down.’ We’d meet up and he’d go, ‘Come on, there’s a guy roughing up a girl outside, so we’ve got to go and sort it out.’ He was decked a couple of times, taking on pimps. He had a lot of bottle.
“I had fights when I was young, but violence is the great curse. Not a uniquely British one, but one you see here a lot all the same. A male vice. It’s not the way to sort anything out, because all it does is postpone it. It’s what happens when, as Orwell described it, you start thinking with the blood. You’ve run out of words and it’s a rage at your own inarticulacy.”
Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis is out now (Jonathan Cape)
(Image: Rex Features)