There was a beautiful scene at the end of Martin Amis’ England, a BBC4 documentary airing last Sunday evening. The novelist intoned about English virtues of tolerance and moderation as we were treated to a sight of crowds at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park: an American preacher in a cowboy hat rants about the evils of the Koran while a burqa-clad passerby looked on; a smartly dressed tour guide explained to his group about the monarchy while a grey-haired man spoke to some bored-looking students about Marx. Unfortunately for Amis, the scene was so striking because it was a simple scene that told you much more about life in contemporary multicultural Britain than any of his novels over the past quarter century.
Martin Amis’ England was an amiable enough, if slightly odd, programme: originally made for French television, it featured the author speaking for an hour about a ragbag of subjects related to some concept of Englishness. Anyone who has ever picked up one of Amis’ books will know what this entailed: an elegiac fetishisation of the social habits of the working class (mainly hooliganism and pubs), an obsession with the snobbery of the upper classes and a vague stab at provocation by discussing women’s rape fantasies. It was warming viewing for a Sunday evening, the sort of thing you could gently nod off to before dreaming of Amis, who was once such a great satirist of the moral anarchy and decay of Britain under Thatcher.
Unfortunately, once you float back into consciousness, you inevitably remember that the author intoning about Englishness is the same berk who, more recently, wrote so execrably about modern Britain in Lionel Asbo, so flaccidly about the sexual revolution in The Pregnant Widow, and so hysterically (in the wrong sense) about the rise of contemporary Islamism in, well, just about every media outlet that would give him a platform.
Still, as he demonstrated a decade ago in his autobiography, Experience, Amis remains a smart critic, a keen observer of human foibles and eminently capable of sparkling anecdotes. Plenty of these qualities were on show in Martin Amis’ England, but anyone looking for a useful insight into the nature of England would have been left wanting. As we’ve known for quite some years now, Martin Amis is really at his best when he’s talking only about himself.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.