Martin Amis, Geezer-Prat, & His Unfortunate Clichés Of Britishness

With the release of cynical new novel Lionel Asbo: State Of England, argues Alex Niven, Martin Amis continues the patronising run of form that helped install the pernicious and cliché-ridden notion of 'Cool Britannia' and ultimately Boris and Dave's Big Society

Martin Amis has a new novel out and fustian broadsheet arts reviewers are falling over themselves to wheel out his signature tagline: Martin Amis is the Mick Jagger of literature. Like most lazy, Wikipedia-sourced epithets, this one is both risible and accurate. On the one hand, Sir Mick seems like a laughable touchstone for countercultural cool (imagine the media proclaiming that Mario Balotelli is the Rod Stewart of football, or that Michael Fassbender is the Jon Bon Jovi of modern cinema). But then there’s also something peculiarly apt about the parallel. Jagger and Amis are roughly the same age, after all. They’re both, in their respective art forms, champions of style over substance. They’re both children of the sixties who have made careers out of evoking the satanic underbelly and Dionysian debauchery of the so-called permissive society. They’re both onetime vaguely subversive figures of the pop avant-garde who became reactionary old exiles as the twentieth century petered out.

Above all, Jagger and Amis make a good pairing because they’re both once-talented artists who now produce work that pretty much nobody takes seriously. If Amis is a ‘rock & roll’ novelist, then his recent career has proven that there’s no longer anything desirable about that designation. A bloated Elvis, Amis is a rockstar writer only in the most negative sense. His satirical postmodern prose – which once, in seventies novels like Dead Babies and Success, provided a deliciously dark kaleidoscope of its era – has increasingly come to resemble a late Pink Floyd album: turgid, mean-spirited, self-repetitive, a rehash of past glories. A reviewer of Amis’s 2003 novel Yellow Dog memorably described it as so bad that the experience of reading it was like catching your uncle wanking in a school playground.

Amis’s latest, Lionel Asbo: State of England, has been greeted with similar ridicule, pilloried right across the board for its cliché-ridden premise and its patronising working-class caricatures. By Dickens, it’s true that we need more novels that tackle issues of class and inject a bit of Wire-style social critique into Brit fiction. But Amis’s one-dimensional portrait of a Cobra-drinking, lottery-winning sociopath is so condescending and unsympathetic it makes Jeremy Kyle look like Ken Loach. Set in the fictional London township of ‘Diston’, where “nothing – and no one – is over sixty years old”, and where there are “six children per couple – or per single mother”, Lionel Asbo is a cynical, unearned, wildly unrealistic paragon of upper-middle-class snobbery, the like of which probably hasn’t been seen as credible since the 1930s.

Or has it? Actually, Amis has been banging away at this coalface for decades now. Lionel Asbo revisits the territory of Money and London Fields, the novels that cemented his reputation in the 1980s, both of which were notable for their depictions of working-class Londoners as the savagely illiterate inhabitants of a dystopian banlieue of post-Imperial Britain at the supposed nadir of its decline. But while Lionel Asbo is being viewed as the final nail in a once decent writer’s coffin, antecedent works like Money and London Fields were widely popular and influential a quarter of a century ago, to the point that they had a profound impact on popular culture and initiated an invidious myth of cartoon Britishness that we haven’t really managed to shake off since.

If it’s true that writers pre-empt and to a certain extent create the world we live in, then Amis has a lot of answering to do. As Britain transitioned from the idealism and optimism of the sixties and early seventies into the neo-Victorian depression of the Thatcher years, Amis put a marker on the zeitgeist with his hyperreal, Baudelaire-meets-Nabokov portraits of the late-capitalist cityscape. The media dubbed this peculiar amalgam of irony and gothic morbidity ‘the new unpleasantness’. The problem was that unpleasantness and cynicism then proceeded to become the default attitude of a liberal establishment growing tough and mean in the years of aggressive privatisation and New Right hegemony. For that floating metropolitan cohort that in other, better countries is called the intelligentsia, the sort of campy misogyny and tongue-in-cheek jingoism Amis so cleverly ‘satirised’ in novels like London Fields became a fashionable alternative to the leftist and modernist grand narratives apparently being discredited in an era of perestroika and postmodern relativism.

One especially enthusiastic Amis acolyte during the long reign of Thatcher and Major was Damon Albarn. Blur’s supremely self-involved frontman claimed that London Fields ‘saved him’ during a fractious tour of America in 1992. He instantly set about dreaming up a concept album that would import Amisian caricature into a British pop scene seeking to move on from the ornery, activist-dominated climate of eighties indie. With Keith Talent, the geezerish protagonist of London Fields, acting as his role-model (“he was so English I wanted to be him”), Albarn created an elaborate pastiche of working-class Englishness that became instantly and emphatically successful. Greyhound racing, jubilees, bank holidays, package holidays, Essex suburbia, cheeky laddishness, gratuitous winking, tokenistic shouts of ‘oi!’: everything that seemed cheap and cartoon-like about the British proletariat was subject to Albarn’s stereotyping zeal. Parklife was the immediate result, and Britpop was the epoch-straddling monster spawned by this Amis-indebted musical project.

Before you could mutter an ironic ‘apples and pears’, a sort of pseudo-populist, tabloid reduction of demotic Britishness had become the mode du jour. In the nineties, instead of a working-class resurgence, we got a nightmare collage of Carry On films and smutty seaside postcards; in place of the affirmative reaction to Thatcherism that rave and bands like the Stone Roses and Manic Street Preachers had promised, a pitilessly tacky vision of the masses dreamt up by a bored, newly avaricious liberal bourgeoisie came to occupy centre stage. Along the way, few people stopped to ask where this turn toward parochialism and class minstrelsy had come from: in the heady economic boom-time of the mid-nineties, it was easy to pretend this day-glo populism was a harbinger of the spontaneous upswell of radicalism people had been yearning for since 1979. In reality it was a fancy dress party for a middle-class whose snobbery was being indulged by Blairism and its quiet project of wealth redistribution to the rich.

Nineties and noughties culture was dominated by this combination of comic-book elegant slumming underpinned by cynical self-interest and harsh economic realism: in other words, exactly the sort of stance that had earned Martin Amis critical praise and copious royalties at the start of the period. Damien Hirst, with his cheekily farcical pop-art games and unabashed commercialism, might have sprung straight out of Money or London Fields; similarly it was and remains difficult to work out whether novelist Will Self is in fact a real person, or one of Amis’s more perversely parodic creations. From Jamie Oliver’s overcooked mockney persona, to Pete Doherty’s ostentatious referencing of Steptoe & Son and ‘the good ship Albion’, to Little Britain‘s now widely discredited pantomime of blackface and inverted nationalism, burlesqued Britishness became the mainstream cultural norm. Against this backdrop, little room was left for the possibility that some people living in the small towns of the north and the council estates of Bristol might actually be intelligent, fully-rounded human beings capable of transcending the tabloid caricatures doled out to them by their Guardian Guide-reading friends in the liberal commentariat.   

In the last couple of years this Cool Britannia mythos, which at least liked to claim that it was vaguely alternative and in some sense progressive, has undergone a subtle but significant metamorphosis into Boris and Dave’s Big Society English Nationalist Jubilee Olympiad. When we look back at how the whole thing started, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that certain members of Blur occupy a central position in Cameron’s Green Tory zeitgeist, or that the director of Trainspotting is just about to engineer a surreal English neo-pastoral Olympics opening ceremony for which the phrase ‘postmodern irony’ is only just barely adequate. But hopefully the appearance of Lionel Asbo and its ludicrous bigotry will go some way toward exposing the absurdity of the condescending, Union-Jack-and-Pukka Pies worldview for what it really is. The writer who helped to initiate the Englishness-by-numbers of Britpop phoneyism back in the eighties has become a parody of himself with his latest novel. Maybe this is a sign that the time of the Keith Talents and the Damien Hirsts and the Charmless Men is over, and a cue for us to replace snide sarcasm and top-down nastiness with bottom-up optimism. The bully-boys of the neoliberal establishment are running out of ideas; let’s bury them and initiate a new kind of art that sees ordinary men and women as a source of hope rather than a subject fit only for satire. 

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