Stanley Middleton, Peter Porter, Martin Amis (& me).

Martin Amis was the only contemporary novelist that my late friend Stanley Middleton kept up with. I tuned in with ‘Other People’ and greatly enjoyed ‘Money’, went off him with ‘London Fields’ but really liked ‘The Information’. I didn’t get on with ‘Night Train’ or ‘Time’s Arrow’ (a gimmick that worked when I first read it as a short story but didn’t at novella length). I decided to give up on him after the execrable ‘Yellow Dog’ but Stan persuaded me to read ‘House of Meetings’ and it was really good. I avoided ‘Lionel Asbo’ as, regardless of his much imitated yet unique high style, it looked dreadful. Much of the non-fiction, of course, is terrific, though the auto-fiction in his final ‘novel’, Inside Story, is hit and miss. Fun, though, even the silly stuff where he pretends that Larkin (who died of the same thing) was his dad. I’ve been rereading essays in his first ‘greatest hits’ ‘The War Against Cliche’ (which all good writing is, as he was wont to point out) and there’s loads to chew on. Fun, for instance, to see his steadily growing but always ambivalent regard for J.G.Ballard, who played an important part in my writing life.

I only encountered him twice. The first time, at the AWP conference in New York, fifteen years ago, I was drunk (my companion and I had ordered Manhattans with dinner, but she didn’t like the large bourbon-based drink, so I had to have them both). Amis gave a talk that I don’t remember much about, then took two or three questions, and I got the last one in. He’d written something silly about looking forward to teaching Creative Writing so that he could steal ideas from his students. I asked (I paraphrase) if he’d got any good ones.

The reply made it clear that he refused to read any of his student’s creative writing (this was confirmed to me by a writer who I later taught: ‘if I read yours I’d have to read everybody’s’ he’d been told). Mainly, he said, he taught them Jane Austen. Now, this is admirable in its way (we can all still learn from Austen) but drew gasps from the Writing Masters students who formed the bulk of the audience.

The second time was at the funeral of my friend, the poet, Peter Porter. Clive James gave the oration and Martin sat with Julian Barnes (this appeared to mark the end of their famous rift). Over a two bottle of wine lunch, Peter had once given me some marvellous gossip about Amis from their time at the New Statesman. (I won’t repeat it here because the other famous writer involved is still very much alive and married). I queued to sign the condolence book on behalf of NTU, where Peter had been a visiting professor and I’d accepted a honorary degree on his behalf when he was too ill to attend. Martin joined the queue behind me. I said something nice about the quote he’d given for Peter’s final Collected Poems, the proofs for which he’d received on his deathbed. Amis thanked me. I signed the book and left.

He was, by all accounts, a warm and decent man who was generous to other writers. Oesophageal cancer, which I always struggle to spell despite it have afflicted people very close to me, has taken him too early, as it took his best friend Christopher Hitchens. Too young, though as he would have been first to say, few authors write anything that adds to their reputation after the age he went at, 73. I’ll be reading some of his essays today. I have a signed copy (not from New York!) and a first edition of his masterpiece, ‘Money’, but the rarest Amis in my collection is a copy of his early illustrated book, ‘Invasion of the Space Invaders’. I was never into video games but I did and do love pinball. As did Martin, but, sadly, copyright means I can’t use the photo of him at a pin table, so went for a Wikipedia Commons one instead. That Martin Amis, though, I’m sure he played a mean pinball. Rest in peace, maestro.

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