Why Martin Amis is wrong on Englishness

It was on page 55 that I forever fell out of love with Martin Amis.

It was a lightning romance; our first date was the ease and light of The Rachel Papers. Our second and third – Koba the Dread and Time’s Arrow – got the heavy stuff out of the way. Then we spent the weekend doing London Fields; before it all fell apart with The Information.

The beauty of Amis is in the lurid description – if Quentin Tarantino could write, he would write like Martin Amis – but it is hard not to notice that Amisian descriptions tend to be a little lighter if you are black. White characters like Keith Talent or Nicola Six or Des Pepperdine or Selina Scott merit page after page of description; black characters are just that: black, and invariably criminals (if he had not been one of the best writers of the late 20th century, Amis would have been an excellent member of the London Met). I had turned a blind eye in those early days, those first dates, but I just could not do it any longer.

‘He talked London’, Martin Amis writes of one character, ‘but there were memories of Africa in him’, a description that I suppose would be equally true of me as it was of Crash, one of the gang of small-time criminals who are recruited by a failed novelist to do harm to a more successful rival. But I always retained a fear – or a hope – that perhaps I was writing off Amis too easily, that I was being just a little unfair.

Until this week. Crossing the Atlantic for one of those interventions that characterise his late career – is it too cruel, or just too easy, to throw his line on Nabokov, about writers dying twice, once when the body fails, and once when the talent runs out, back in his face? – Amis, filming a documentary on Englishness, mused on the link between colour and nationhood. In England, Amis argued, we see a white skin as inseparable from Englishness.

Well, I certainly do not. I do not think the football fans who mourned Theo Walcott’s injury see Walcott as less English than Steven Gerrard. And I do not think the 48 per cent of mixed-race people who described themselves as English at the last census did so by accident. A YouGov survey for British Future found that 74 per cent of respondents did not see whiteness as an essential aspect of Englishness; making the number of people who agree with Martin Amis almost as exclusive as the group of people who thought that ‘Lionel Asbo’ was any good.

But does it matter? Amis does not even live in England any more, and most of his interventions are calculated to shock. Not really, except as a reminder. Definitions are like houses; they don’t remain unoccupied just because you do not care to live in them. There is an England that makes space for Theo Walcott, and for me. But there is also an England that looks more like the one imagined by Martin Amis. The former will not overcome the latter by itself.

This piece originally appeared on the Progress website.


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